31 July 2011

A Song to Sing

notes tucked into a crack in the Western Wall Tunnels
We took the Fellows into the Old City today--one last time--for a tour of the Western Wall Tunnels, an interesting if flawed ideological journey into the weird melding of nationalism, delusional Third Temple politics, state funded archaeological research and private foundation support for control of the narrative from two thousand years ago.

I start from the premise that one of the most idiotic, inflammatory, and anti-intellectual things the Palestinian leadership has consistently done is deny a Jewish claim to ancient Jerusalem.  Despite continued evidence to the contrary, one can consistently find the claim that a Jewish hold on this holy city is a Zionist and colonial fabrication at best or worse, a Zionist and colonial fabrication.  A real win-win.  Not.

Archaeological evidence around the Temple Mount, uncovered daily in Jerusalem, quickens the heart of anyone who cares about history--especially ancient history--if for no other reason than the fact that it's endlessly fascinating.  What these discoveries reveal about the formation of ancient cultures, language, customs, food, economics, politics and history! history! history! is in large measure what the Zionist project is all about--a return to the historical stage for the Jewish people after being without a land of their own, at the whim and by the good graces of other nations.  The project of unearthing who we once were, with whom we interacted, with whom we lived, and even those who dominated and then expelled us from this land--this project of unearthing it all for the sake of merely understanding where we've been and where we might be going is an exercise every nation ought to have a right to practice.

As a city of layers, Jerusalem is a stony record of destruction piled upon destruction; the art and science of archaeology is expressed in striking a balance between what can be excavated and what ought to be left alone for another day.  Jews uncovering graves of Jews, thereby risking desecration of the peaceful sleep of the dead, can cause riots as quickly as Jews digging beneath the Temple Mount, empty of the 2nd Temple and now the repose of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque.  It's always a delicate balance in this town.

But when the people paying for the excavations and leading the tours of the tunnels are forever reminding you of the Temple and turning your heart and attention to the prayers to build a Third Temple are really just carrying out a kind of religio-emotional manipulation; and, they parade before you the crying ladies who sit underground, weeping and reciting Psalms *directly* in front of the spot where we estimate is just below the place where the Holy of Holies--the place of sacrifice and therefore religiously and doctrinally for Temple Era Jews the place of God's very existence on Earth--this place--why, when you hear that, you are in the throes of major demagoguery.  You are the product of a whipping up of the masses of tourists to these sites with an idea hoisted upon us unwillingly but now willingly embraced by the Jews around the world if they would un-suspend their judgement and consider ideas of verifiable truth for one brief moment:  in losing the Temple two thousand years ago, we lost the ability to slaughter animals as a form of worship.  Replaced, paradoxically and tragically, thank God, by prayers and study and the performance of mitzvot.  In other words, through the bitter exigencies and ironies of history, we have actually adapted and progressed.

Who wants the blood and the fire--particularly when the restaurants on Agrippas Street are so delicious *and* kosher!?

I get so cranky in these situations.  And there is so much to explain to the students.  So much nuance.  Like:  Of course we deserved to win back the Old City and of course we have to carry out the excavations because objective truth, verifiable, is historical Zionism's great liberation.  Like:  Excavations are all the more powerful in the face of Palestinian leadership's desire to deny a claim to ancient Jewish Jerusalem.  Like:  When you win a war--44 years ago--you have to choose your battles very carefully as a benevolent ruler and therefore what you dig and where you dig is as much about keeping the peace as it is about pursuing the truth--and one should always take great care in finding just the right balance between the two.  When you and your army control Jerusalem, you have to know when and where to dig; and when you have an army, and a police force, and an archaeological authority, you have to know to take great *not* to combine it with Messianic dreams, stated aloud on tourist tours like, "We pray for a Third Temple to rise on this spot."  Or, "When the High Priest returns to this spot to offer Temple Sacrifices at this holy place, he will first have to be bathed in the waters of the mikveh purified by the blood of a pure Red Heifer."  And he'd do well to say (which he never does), "Of course doing so will create World War Three and the Greatest Bloodbath Imaginable and Arguably Irredeemably Disastrous for the Jewish People and the World so we won't even consider it!"  Oh, why do we never hear that?

Kids reach forward to kiss the wall, beneath the ground, where the ladies cry.  And I want to cry:  for the poor in the land who are living in tents not only on Rothschild but in shelters and cardboard boxes.  For the South Sudanese that the Israelis are helping to construct a new economy in a new nation in Africa.  For the teachers here who are underpaid (Jewish teachers--underpaid!)  For the families that can't afford enough room to raise and feed their children. And for the hate:  for the religious who hate the secular; for the secular who hate the religious; for the men and women who hate the gays; for the Jews who hate the Palestinians and for the Palestinians who hate the Jews.  Enough already.

Alluring, I know, to ask the Messiah to make it all go away.  Like magic.

Moses, whose grave is unmarked; Moses, for whom no archaeological evidence that he ever lived exists (Freud, schmendrik, implies that he's a composite, a construct--feh!); Moses, Moshe Rabenu, Moses our Teacher, defeats the Egyptians magic with a faith in God, rooted in the Law, where God is One and the first word after the declaration of God's oneness is Love.

Love, as romantic and poetic as we understand it to be, is the opposite of magic.

Climbing up the stairs into the Jewish Quarter (plowed over by the Jordanians between 1948 and 1967) we sat for felafel in the store of a rude and inhospitable Israel restauranteur.  Just below us, at the top of stairs leading to the Kotel Plaza, cleared of homes bulldozed by Israeli authorities to make way for the crowds that would want to get close to the Holy of Holies (the original fuel on the fire of Palestinian Paranoia of a Jewish desire to replace one narrative with another) there, at the top of the stairs, sits a Golden Menorah, paid for by some rich guy, to be placed in a re-built Third Temple.

Every time I see it, I quake with fear that one day, the beauty of the Golden Dome of the Rock will be replaced by the apocalyptic Temple of the Jews.  I mean, on any given day, I can pray in countless shuls across the holy city of blessing and be reminded of all the work that remains to be done in order to bring about a better world.

And let me tell you--of all the things that will bring that day closer, several thousand dead sheep, goats, calves and pigeons always show up at the bottom of the list of efficacious fuel for world redemption. 

But you and me together, digging through the dirt of our narratives, sharing our stories in the redeeming shade, a protection from the hot, flaming sun of purity and religious truth--now that's a song to sing.

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.

28 July 2011

Toward Hope

from rothschild protests.  sign reads, "where's the hope?"
There are times when the morning prayers, the shape and texture of the Hebrew language, printed on the page, black ink on thin white paper, needs more than the work of the eyes.  There are days when the full articulation of the spoken language, sculpted by mouth, teeth and tongue, into instruments of devotion like vessels from clay, take precedence.  What you say.  What you do.  And the fortuitous combination thereof.

Some days I imagine I'm a kid on a slide, in the backyard, under a tree, so free and easy is the vocalization of the written word.  Joyous, even playful.  The comfortable respite in the cool shade of a hot day.  Other days, I am climbing over hard and forbidding rocks, risking injury, stronger for having made it to the top but seriously questioning my sanity along the way.  At moments I am radically alone; sometimes with others in a similar harrowing predicament, whose own unique formations of the word are like ropes, hooks, pulleys and pick-axes, a shared, trusted and tenuous scaffolding for our own meager aspirations.

"God spoke and the world came into being."  These quiet, introspective meditations, at the end of the day, just don't cut it.  "What's that, son?  Speak up!"  That kind of thing.

Coming off the Dolphinarium Beach yesterday in Tel Aviv, walking past the disco where in 2001 a Hamas suicide bomber killed 21 teenagers, I chose silence rather than explain to my 8 year old the memorial to the kids who died there.  "All my life I grew up among the Sages and never heard anything better than silence."  There the names were already remembered--sculpted--into stone.

As we shook sand from our feet and heads, off in the distance we saw an elderly man working through his Tai Chi exercises, moving arms and torso along with the wind off the Mediterranean.  From a distance, I imitated his movements.  I thought of him this morning, as I climbed words in my prayerbook.  His age, his wisdom, his peace by the Sea.  "Pharaoh's chariots and his host God has thrown into the Sea..the deep covers them; they went down into the depths like a stone."  That's what his hands were doing, I thought--throwing Pharoahs into Seas:  Hatred.  War.  Poverty.  Greed.  Depression.  Despair.  Drowned and gone, ground into sand from stone.  Good imagery.

We walked up through Neve Tzedek and over to Rothschild, to visit the protesters and share with our daughter a civics lesson in protest and dissent, engaging puppets, musicians, students and the elderly, all of whom were there, to leave a mark on the direction of the State.  (I still hold out hope that in whatever revolution takes place, better attention is paid to Independence Hall and the area outside of it--what a damn mess!)  Though still amorphously young and in search of a crystal clear set of demands, their refusal to leave has generated more strength across the country and could likely keep developing into a much broader social movement that has the potential to form another iteration of this young nation, particularly if the movement spreads beyond housing to include a broader economic, political and security agenda.  Here, everything is connected.  "How fair are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel."

On Rothschild we ran into Ohad Naharin, the brilliant Israeli choreographer.  He stopped to chat as his wife and child pressed ahead into the crowd.  He heard about the Fellows Gaga class, we talked about the protests, and then about his trip to New York next spring.  He told us he just came from a class where he taught 125 dancers from all over the world who are studying with him here in Tel Aviv.  More than one hundred years ago, Ahad Ha'am posits that the land of Israel can be a place from which emanate ideas and movements that have the potential to empower forces that build a better world.  It is actually not ridiculous to see this as one small shot across the bow of redemption.  In his poem "Tourists," Yehuda Amichai sublimates grand vision into the simple act of a man providing for his family.  Of a tour guide showing ruins to a group in the Old City of Jerusalem, Amichai wrote,  "I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, 'You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'"

There went one, moving into the Sea of Protest, to find his wife and child.  From this perspective, the nation's texture, its perceived hardened positions, yielding an as yet undetermined horizon but one clearly positioned toward a place worthy of prayer, toward hope.

27 July 2011

On Tisha B'Av

On Monday night August 8 at 9 pm at CBE, our synagogue will commemorate Tisha B'Av with Altshul, the Independent Minyan which has been meeting at CBE for the past five years.  We will meet in the Rotunda space at 274 Garfield, beginning with an evening service, the reading of the Book of Lamentations in Hebrew, and a Dvar Torah by yours truly.

Traditionally, the Reform Movement has not commemorated Tisha B'Av, a policy platform essentially going back to the early 19th century roots of Reform.  The essentially thinking at the time was that Reform did not seek the messianic restoration of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the re-building of the Temple, which last stood two thousand years ago and was destroyed by the Roman Empire in 70 AD--the beginning of the Jewish exile until the advent of Zionism in the late 19th century and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. 

By the mid-twentieth century--if not centuries earlier--most Jews prayed for a restoration to the Jewish homeland, orienting their spirituality "East" toward Jerusalem, but it's fair to say a distinct minority would actually seek to restore the Temple and the practice of animal sacrifice.  Maimonides, as early as the 12th century, seemed to believe that animal sacrifice represented a stage of Jewish belief that had been fully replaced by Torah study, Prayer, and Mitzvot.

So, while one understands on a certain intellectual level the perceived mandate of Reform to abandon Tisha B'Av, their narrow reading of its significance (limited to the Temple's destruction) circumscribed a deeper and more national understanding of what it meant to the Jewish people to lose their spiritual center--Jerusalem.  The Book of Lamentations is a prophetic dirge, a terribly troubling and awe-inspiring funereal national poem about loss and destruction that can make the coldest heart weep.  Written after the first destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BC, it is a document filled with self-blame and a sense of punishment at the hands of God for national sin.  Nearly 700 years later, when Jerusalem falls again to the Romans, the Sages go deeper inside themselves, blaming the fall of Jerusalem and "free and causeless hatred," factionalization, fissures that divided the people beyond repair.  Whereas an earlier generation saw themselves as being punished by an Omnipotent God, the Sages understood something else--national tragedies are often brought upon nations themselves.  They implore us to understand our public discourse, our public behavior, our civic culture, as necessitating scrutiny and introspection in order to determine if we've always acted, as a political entity, as we should.

Here then, when the Reform movement maintains a kind of objective distance from Tisha B'Av--a small number of synagogues actually mark it on their calendars--we have an opportunity to re-engage this traditional day of mourning, fasting and commemoration with a real and metaphoric reading of how Jerusalem has fallen and, God forbid, could fall again.  Similarly, when the national political discourse in the Diaspora has grown increasingly violent and cynical, one can also apply the lessons of Tisha B'Av to the American civic experiment as well.  Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural address immediately comes to mind, steeped as it was the deep religious concern for God's judgement of America for slavery.

As a man who generally has to be dragged away from Jerusalem each summer by wild horses, it pains me greatly to have to leave this heart of my own spiritual existence.  Being forced by the calendar of Jewish time to imagine its utter destruction, to examine the ways in which my own actions or language contribute to the destabilizing structures of Jewish life, and further, to apply a similar interpretive lens to the American civic experiment as well, is a mandate we ought to welcome as a community. 

I was speaking to a Moroccan storekeeper yesterday, a 4th generation Jerusalemite, who remembers being expelled from the Old City by Jordanians in 1948.  "You can leave your home temporarily," she said with a wink, "but forever?  That's for God to decide." 

Zionism's great, bold, revolutionary ingenuity, was insisting on coming home and rebuilding a Jewish home that continues to emanate outward, in new ways that continue the Jewish people and its ideas onward into the future.  That it has come with the responsibility of its engagement with a diverse Jewish world--ethnically and religiously; and the responsibility of its engagement with Palestinians and the Arab nation; and the responsibility of its engagement with the greater world in general--means that there will always be successes and failures that we as a people *ought* to be confronting, examining, learning from, and finding, with strength and vision, new ways forward into history and time.

Just because you don't pray for a Third Temple, it doesn't mean there isn't significant work to do in examining destruction, hatred and division.  And Tisha B'Av is our sacred Jewish time for doing such work together as a community. 

I invite you to join us at CBE on August 8 at 9 pm.

25 July 2011

And They Shall Dwell in Tents

student protester talking to media on rothschild street, tel aviv.  one sign in background says, "Bibi--come sleep with us!"
My initial impression of the students and artists who are sitting out on Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv, protesting the prohibitive cost of housing in the city, the center of the country, and the periphery, was to be warmly amused but underwhelmed.  Not that I expected an amazing power-point presentation when moving from tent to tent, from table to table, talking to people about their protests, but at least yesterday afternoon, things seemed vaguely, well, overly comfortable.  As if in a moment, when classes begin in the Fall, life will simply return to normal.  On the other hand, *that* people were protesting at all was generally taken as a good sign by people all around that this may the beginning of the core population of the country beginning to express its deep dissatisfaction with the normal course of events, which, in Israel, is generally delightfully though often exhaustively and frustratingly abnormal.

One group of artists was happily smoking weed and making pieces of folk art to sell to support the cause; others sat in the late afternoon sun, dazed a bit from days outdoors but cheery and optimistic about gaining strength on the road ahead.  There was one very enthusiastic group of young people encouraging participation in a kind of "built-it-yourself" movement in the Golan and the Galilee, sponsored by the Jewish Agency.  They were giving out cool bumper stickers. 

Our stop by the National Student Union yielded disappointment.  Several of us pressed them on what their demands were and since we had read, earlier in the day, an article by Dror Etkes in Haaretz decrying the problematic policy of the government subsidizing housing in the Settlements while neglecting an equitable arrangement within Israel's established borders, we were eager to hear what the student leaders had to say.  It seemed to us an opportunity to hear that some very serious and stark choices were implied in the structure of this protest and that what began with cottage cheese a month ago, moved to housing today, could one day soon be a larger fortification of views and positions regarding the overall direction of the nation.  "We're not getting in to 'left-center-right'," one leader said and his voice lacked passion.  "It's too dividing."  It made sense, in a way, given that only four days into the protest, there's wisdom in strengthening bonds and carefully arriving at a strategy for a way forward.  Still, after so many years of vocal frustration with leadership, we expected more.  One Bronfman Fellow picked up from the protest table one student's copy, in Hebrew, of Sir Isaiah Berlin's famous biography of Karl Marx, marveling at its cover.  The student retrieved it in a huff, walking away to his own tent to continue reading.  It was kind of funny.

My colleague Josh Feigelson sums up things nicely on his blog--positioning the experience as a call for more energized and visionary leadership--and making a link between the stalled budget and debt negotiations in Washington with a generally perceived failure of leadership here as well.

When we pressed the students on their demands, one leader pulled out his iPhone, took us to a link on Ynet and showed us another student leader throwing plastic cups at a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee.  Where's Abbie Hoffman when you need him?

Today, however, Haaretz reports on the beginning of an agenda that might possibly have the attention of the government:  all of a sudden a number of bills are being formulated, indicating that the issue has clearly tapped a nerve.  How it all plays out in the weeks ahead will be a matter of great interest.

23 July 2011

A Higher World

solomon ibn gabirol
As a kind of meditation last night, I walked to meet some friends for dinner at a restaurant near the center of town, using the walk as an opportunity to think about the people for whom streets were named as the point of departure for my thoughts the entire way.

I was heading to an address on Keren Kayemet L'Yisrael--a street named for the Jewish National Fund, one of the major philanthropic vehicles for the Jewish people to raise money for the purchase of lands in the early days of Zionist movement--a kind of fitting destination for a route that would be comprised solely of streets named for people who, to one degree or another, represented the aspirations toward the realization of this idea.

I started where all good American bourgeois visiting Israel start--Emek Refaim Street (translation:  the Valley of Ghosts or Giants).  Its Biblical associations are with early beliefs that Jebusite ghosts may have begun their journey to the underworld in the valley at the head of Emek Refaim; other sources suggest that prior to the conquest of the land in Deuteronomy, the enemies were seen as "giants" and here, classical Jewish sources generally translate it.  I mused briefly on this tension while walking--the giants of Zionism and the ghosts of Zionism; and the relationship, inescapable, between a conquered and conquered people.  To be sure, street names here have more than once changed their names depending upon who was ruling in the land.

My first turn off Emek Refaim was onto Graetz, named for Heinrich Graetz, one of the giants of German Jewry, whose multi-volume History of the Jews set a standard for understanding Jewish history--"suffering and spirit"--until it would later be superseded by other historians in other generations.  Unique among the early modern Jewish historians, Graetz showed interest in traveling to the Land of Israel for his investigations and agitating against certain assimilationist conventions in Germany.   A quick jog past Dubnov, named for the Russian historian whose Bundist idea--"Autonomism"--was a vision for Jewish autonomy in the Diaspora, represented his ambivalence toward Zionism but his strong views against assimilation.

Through one of my favorite parks in Jerusalem along (Leon) Pinsker Street, son of a Hebrew writer, physician and activist, and founder of Hovevei Zion, a proto-Zionist movement to establish a greater Jewish presence in the land of Israel following a wave of Russian pogroms.  Said Pinsker, "... to the living the Jew is a corpse, to the native a foreigner, to the homesteader a vagrant, to the proprietary a beggar, to the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, to the patriot a man without a country, for all a hated rival."  Valley of Ghosts indeed!  With the philanthropic aid of Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, Pinsker's "Auto-Emancipation" was critical to the development of early Zionism.  Past Alkalai, who, preceding Rabbi Abraham Kook, believed that in order for the messiah to come, the Jewish people must precede the messiah by physically returning to the Land, not waiting for his arrival; and then past (Laurence) Oliphant, named for the Scotch/English early Christian Zionist.

Off Pinsker, I got to David Marcus, named for the Brooklyn native who served in Pearl Harbor, was in the D-Day invasion, and was part of the occupying force in Berlin after the war, and eventually, under a pseudonym, joined the Israelis in the War of Independence, becoming the new state's "first general" and tragically, falling under friendly fire during the closing days of the war in Abu Ghosh. 

Across Jabotinsky, the Zionist Revisionist, territorial maximalist, passionate defender of the Jewish people at all costs and a critic of the incrementalism of mainstream Zionist leadership, Jabo was in some ways the secular ideological father of the Settler movement.

On to Balfour, named for the British Foreign Secretary, whose famous declaration to Baron Rothschild, gave the first true British Imperial recognition of a Jewish national home in the land of Israel.  "His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

A quick left on to Ovadia Me'Bartenura, named for the Italian Talmud scholar whose 15th century migration to Jerusalem was critical for the intellectual support and charitable development of the Jewish community there, and then on to Arlozoroff, a Zionist leader in British Mandate Palestine, who headed the Jewish Agency's political division and died by an assassin's bullet on the beach in Tel Aviv in 1933, with theories ranging from his murderers being connected to the Revisionists, Arabs, or Nazis (Arlozoroff had traveled to Germany to negotiate with Nazis and attempt to secure the transfer of Jews from Germany in the controversial Ha'avara agreement.)  To this day, his murder remains a mystery.

The last leg of the journey was walking along Ibn Gevirol, the 11th century Jewish Spanish Neo-Platonist who wrote philosophy in Arabic and wrote poetry in Hebrew, some of which remains in the Jewish prayerbook.  I had finally arrived at my destination.

Among his many writings, Ibn Gevirol wrote, "Knowledge indeed leads to deeds, and deeds separate the soul from the contraries which harm it…In every way, knowledge and deeds liberate the soul from the captivity of nature and purge it of its darkness and obscurity, and in this way the soul returns to its higher world."

Though Shabbat had ended and the streets had darkened, and I had begun my journey in the Valley of Ghosts, I paused to contemplate the higher world of history I had just walked.

22 July 2011

Official Statement on Park Slope Food Coop, Israel and the BDS Discussion

Statement by Rabbi Andy Bachman
Senior Rabbi, Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn, NY
On the Park Slope Food Coop Referendum Discussion regarding Israel and BDS

July 22, 2011

As a diverse community in Brooklyn for nearly 150 years, the membership of Congregation Beth Elohim represents a variety of views and opinions about the State of Israel.  In its more than sixty-three years of existence, there has been as diverse an expression of visions for what kind of state and which territorial boundaries Israel ought to represent.  While it’s true that the attempt to create a Jewish nation in the historic homeland of the Jewish people has always faced both acceptance and opposition from the family of nations, Israel’s existence as a modern nation after two thousand years represents a remarkable achievement virtually unprecedented in human history and is therefore an incredible source of pride for Jews and others around the world.  

Israel's contemporary reality, as can be expected, continues to generate excitement and debate. Reflecting these realities each year at CBE, we offer programs, discussion groups, book groups, forums for political activism related to Israel and Palestine, and study trips for youth and adults that are open to and welcome everyone.  Some voices support; some voices criticize.  Nonetheless, to be clear, our community is united in the belief that the State of Israel has the right to exist.  

In light of the upcoming discussion and debate at the Park Slope Food Co-op with regard to considering a referendum on the BDS movement, I wanted to take the opportunity to briefly share why the Clergy and leadership at Congregation Beth Elohim are united in their opposition to this movement.   

A closer look at the BDS movement reveals that the basic assumption of Israel's right to exist is not shared and in fact even a cursory look into BDS rhetoric reveals that the ultimate goal of the majority of its supporters is a dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state.  This is simply untenable and unjust.

The BDS movement singles out Israel as the sole offender in this painful and protracted conflict. Moreover, the BDS movement ignores the broader regional context and glaring human rights abuses in surrounding states that destructively impact the dynamics between Israel and the Palestinians. Finally, the BDS movement ignores the tremendous efforts being made on the ground, on a daily basis, to strengthen the hands of those in Israel and Palestine who daily work for peace.  

As a synagogue in America, Congregation Beth Elohim cherishes the democratic process afforded to us by the U.S. Constitution.  And in that spirit, we welcome the Park Slope Food Coop as a valued community institution to hold its meeting to discuss this painful issue in our Temple House; it is a given that open discussion and debate is essential to the experience of democratic communities expressing their ideas and values.  But in the end, we oppose the idea of a boycott of Israel for three simple reasons.  One, it singles out Israel at the exclusion of an equal accounting of Palestinians and other Arab states for their own abuses and contributions to this conflict.  Two, it is clear to us that the long-term goal of the BDS movement is to delegitimize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. And three, a PSFC boycott of Israel will greatly divide the delicate fabric of a community institution with as diverse a membership as any democratic community organization in the United States. 

On a personal note, I write this from Jerusalem where I teach each summer.  My friendships with Israelis and Palestinians are long and deep and I detect this summer in particular an urgency and determination, despite the seeming intractability of the conflict, to find a way forward to peace.  I believe our greatest chance of success is found not in singling out one side or another for blame but in strengthening the hands of those on both sides of the conflict in building relationships of mutuality and cooperation; dialogue and understanding.  From this perspective, the Land continues to inspire great acts of reconciliation and love that, if strengthened through our own help, can bring about a resolution of this issue for Israelis and Palestinians so that both peoples can live in peace.

21 July 2011

Lucian Freud, z'l

Mourning the death of Lucian Freud, whose shows in New York we never missed.  I was holding out for one more opportunity to see what he might create before turning ninety.

The Times Obit is here.  A brutally honest genius.

20 July 2011

"Knock Your Head Sidewise"

I'm sitting in a cafe at Maale Gilboa, the only place around I can find an internet connection.  By 8 am here in the Valley it's already dreadfully hot.  My coffee is delicious but these damn flies are going to be the end of me.

Herewith is my only reasonable response:
The Fly
By Karl Shapiro
O hideous little bat, the size of snot,
With polyhedral eye and shabby clothes,
To populate the stinking cat you walk
The promontory of the dead man’s nose,
Climb with the fine leg of a Duncan-Phyfe
   The smoking mountains of my food
      And in a comic mood
   In mid-air take to bed a wife.

Riding and riding with your filth of hair
On gluey foot or wing, forever coy,
Hot from the compost and green sweet decay,
Sounding your buzzer like an urchin toy—
You dot all whiteness with diminutive stool,
   In the tight belly of the dead
      Burrow with hungry head
   And inlay maggots like a jewel.

At your approach the great horse stomps and paws
Bringing the hurricane of his heavy tail;
Shod in disease you dare to kiss my hand
Which sweeps against you like an angry flail;
Still you return, return, trusting your wing
   To draw you from the hunter’s reach
      That learns to kill to teach
   Disorder to the tinier thing.

My peace is your disaster. For your death
Children like spiders cup their pretty hands
And wives resort to chemistry of war.
In fens of sticky paper and quicksands
You glue yourself to death. Where you are stuck
   You struggle hideously and beg,
      You amputate your leg
   Imbedded in the amber muck.

But I, a man, must swat you with my hate,
Slap you across the air and crush your flight,
Must mangle with my shoe and smear your blood,
Expose your little guts pasty and white,
Knock your head sidewise like a drunkard’s hat,
   Pin your wings under like a crow’s,
      Tear off your flimsy clothes
   And beat you as one beats a rat.

Then like Gargantua I stride among
The corpses strewn like raisins in the dust,
The broken bodies of the narrow dead
That catch the throat with fingers of disgust.
I sweep. One gyrates like a top and falls
   And stunned, stone blind, and deaf
      Buzzes its frightful F
   And dies between three cannibals.


Orde Wingate
AB Yehoshua
Alef Bet Yehoshua spoke to the Fellows and the Amitim (the Israeli Fellows) yesterday at Haifa University, as he usually does, and created the performance that has arisen to the level of steady perfection, namely, that a Jew is only fully complete living in Israel.  It's an argument made in a perfect circle, the borders of which are set by Yehoshua, and he gives the address each year with an amused smirk on his face as some listeners nod in agreement; others scribble notes in an agitated way, impatiently waiting to pounce on his line of thinking; and still others simply disengage.  Said one Fellow afterward, "Whatever."

With precision, A.B. Yehoshua attempts to define "Who is a Jew," "Who is a Zionist," and "Who is an Israeli."

Who is a Jew is for Yehoshua a relatively empty definition.  He considers devoid of meaning.  While the State and the Rabbis and the Denominations duke it out, he calculates that Jews will continue to define themselves as they wish, and the leadership and the law will tangle over whether or not a collective definition can ultimately emerge.  "That your mother is Jewish" is an halachic definition, valid for those for whom halacha is valid.  Like Gershom Scholem before him, Yehoshua posits that with the return of the Jewish people to their land and their destiny, the Diasporia glue of Jewish law must give way to new, civic, historical definitions of Who is a Jew.  Yehoshua argues we'll eventually figure it out.

Who is a Zionist is simple:  One who believes in the right and necessity of the Jewish people to create a Jewish state.  Here he was quite amusing about various attempts to paint the name of Zionism black, as it were, demonizing the word in political discourse for the purpose of delegitimizing Israel.  There were no Zionists until the 1890s, he said.  My grandparents came from Saloniki in the 1870s, he continued.  They weren't Zionists.  They chose the Land of Israel as Jews.  But those who decided to build a state, a modern political entity, were Zionists.  Effectively, it's a neutral definition.

I teach that idea all the time.

Who is Israeli was his most interesting and "controversial" of all.  Citizenship, Yehoshua argues, makes a Jew a "total Jew" in a way the Diaspora never can.  Moving from Diaspora Jew to Israeli Jew, the Jew, Yehoshua argued, moves from partiality to totality.  "To go to a class with a rabbi on Thursday to talk about Judaism is partial."  Living in Israel--with or without an adherence to Judaism, he argued, is a totality.

Argument ensued.

Does culture, literature, sacredness, God, need to be present for the total Jew?  The Fellows wanted to know.  "The British pilots who were praised by Churchill for their heroism likely never read the plays of Shakespeare but certainly knew the players on Manchester United!"  (Great line.)  "The Frenchman who makes CHEESE never reads Moliere or Racine--is he not FRENCH?"  (Another good line, particular his gnome-like grin and emphasis on the word "cheese.")  Along these lines, he proudly extolled the notion of Arab citizenship.  Of course an Arab can be an Israeli; he will only lack the totality of Jewish identity but why should he concern himself with Jewish identity?  He has a Palestinian identity.  It's that simple.

In the heat of day afterward, we debated and arrived at precious few conclusions.

In the main, it seems Yehoshua's main concern is, essentially, that Jews ought to live here in Israel.  And his argument is logical in its emotion but certainly open to a critique.  For instance, I don't believe he has fully considered what has happened to identity construction in general -- particularly in the last generation -- and he might consider spending some time exploring that among the many Israelis and Americans he'd meet who are not forming their identity in either/or constructs but in multiple identities.

On the other hand, perhaps one can say that demographics don't interest him.  Jews living here does.


We rode from Haifa University through the Carmel Forest (devastated by fire last year) and into Yemin Orde, a youth village devoted to the rehabilitation of more than 500 kids from traumatized, abusive, orphaned backgrounds.  Yemin Orde is named for Orde Wingate, a non-Jewish British army officer who was an ardent supporter of the Zionist cause.  He trained Haganah fighters; his support for the Zionist cause led to his being transferred by the British where he fought with the Ethiopians against the Italians in the Second World War and eventually died in Burma in 1944 when his plane went down. We heard stories of unbelievable heroism, generosity and triumph.

A very inspiring place I hope to support and bring people back to.  One of our presenters was a young Ethiopian social worker who I spoke with.  She was 9 years old when her family emigrated from Ethiopia to Israel and I told her that in 1985, while at Hebrew University, I was part of a delegation of students that brought food and drink to the Ethiopians who were staging a protest in front of the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem, over the issue of forced conversion for these new immigrants.  Her father had joined those protests, saying, "If you're going to make me convert, buy me a ticket and put me on a plane back to Ethiopia."

He had come here, you can say, for the sake of his total Jewish identity.

18 July 2011

The Absent Offering

Leaning against the wall of the Beirav, the Carlbach Shul in Old Sfat, I had positioned myself outside in order to keep an eye on the comings and goings of the Fellows, some of whom chose to wander the streets of this old town on Shabbat, looking for spiritual highs, new insights, strange melodies, something different.  Other tourists wandered about as well, caught in the eddies, the odd mystical streams that drown this landscape in a non-materialist otherness.

The majority of the Fellows were inside the Beirav, embroiled in the mosh-pit of Jewish spiritual manliness.  "Awesome" was a word used alot to describe its bonding fabric of activity.  The girls, behind the mehitza, seemed to present a more mixed review--some enjoying quite a bit the gendered separation, the unique feminine joy of praying without all that masculine meshugas.  Others, a bit more put off, felt shushed on more than one occasion by the men--especially when the second-sexed half of the room "fell behind" the Public Messenger who was delivering the community's prayers to God.

Kabbalat Shabbat drew to a close and Maariv, the more somber and internally oriented offerings were being teed up.  Instantly, a young Hasid was standing beside me, leaning into me, and gesturing toward the small Rinat Yisrael prayerbook in my hands.  Intuitively, I moved the book in his direction and held it for both us.  He immediately began shuckling, off on a kind of run beside me, and I had the sensation of being passed in the park by a fellow runner, outrun by a neighbor on the treadmill, lapped by a guy in the pool.  In short, I didn't measure up.  His offering seemed more, well, organically ambitious; mine, a kind of over-intellectualized theological treatise combined with "deep reflection."  He of the very stones from which the buildings rose, timeless and true; I, voyeur on this odd kabbalistic scene, stood inside myself and outside the situation, analyzing it all:  the girls behind the mehitza; the boys in a dervish; tourists drifting about, dazed; the Hasid, a venerable dybbuk of Roger Bannister, smoothly and swiftly outlasting me:  the Lion of Alacrity.

There I stood, turning pages--our pages--and our prayers to God were intertwined.  I felt radically responsible for his and admittedly, since he didn't stick around long enough for me to find out, I'd hoped he felt mildly responsible for mine.  But I didn't think so.  Rather, I had the distinct impression--and I liked this impression--that each of us were exclusively responsible for ourselves and no other.  At least as those offerings were made.

It's funny.  A week ago I reflected on the experience of prayer at an Egalitarian/Feminist Orthodox shul and contrasted it to my own service leading in a Reform shul, where I am often leading while others pray; and here I was in Sfat, atop a mountain, holding a siddur so another could pray.

I understand the Torah's command that the woodchopper and the water-drawer also share in God's covenant and concluded, with a measure of satisfaction, that sometimes it's enough to keep watch, draw water for another, make room for their prayers to precede your own.

The Kabbalist Isaac Luria developed the idea of tzimtzum--of the necessity of God's withdrawal from the Existence in order to make way for the universe and all its inhabitants to live.  This night, on an infinitely smaller scale, I was cognizant of the benefit of removing oneself in order to make room for another and that this very absenting of oneself is, paradoxically, an offering.

17 July 2011

Home: A Complicated Idea

I flew home to Brooklyn for 36 hours last week and upon entering the country of Israel again Thursday, was asked at the airport why I wasn't using my Israeli passport.  Guilty pleasure:  I had just flown round-trip from Israel.  "Because I don't have one," I said.  "I'm not Israeli." 

But like many American Jews--and many close friends--I arrive here each summer and play a kind of mental game with myself where I pretend I am certainly more than a mere American Jew.  If not an Israeli than I'm a kind of World Jew or better National Jew, that is, someone who places his destiny at home here in Israel, while recognizing that "home," still in the 21st century, is a complicated idea.

Should there be a third passport for people like me--American Passport; Israeli Passport; National Jewish Passport.  The latter should be used not only to pass through borders here in Israel; but for visits to Krakow and Warsaw; Vilna and Budapest; Minsk and Morocco.  Even when I come back through JFK again in August, I'd use my National Jewish Passport, announcing in legal terms, "I come in both pride and ambivalence!"

I see t-shirts, a kind of new social movement:  "I, too, am proudly ambivalent!"

The cab that brought me back from Ben Gurion airport (where do I get a bust of Ben Gurion?  That head!  That mythic head!) not via Highway 1, the route we ordinarily travel, but via Route 443, which cuts toward Jerusalem through Modiin, Givat Zeev and the West Bank.  Infinitely safer since the security fence was built, I was nonetheless deeply uneasy driving through a wall of cement, brick and barbed wire, Modiin Ilit, Ramallah, Kalandia, and Givat Zeev off to either side--Palestinians and Israelis at an uneasy proximity, Sharon and then Olmert having erected a barrier to protect their citizens in the interim until peace could be achieved but peace seeming ever farther and farther away.  The justification we National Jews used to give in careful objective observations about the situation was that yes, the security barrier was an imposition in areas but it undeniably saves Israeli lives from terror.  I still believe this.  But with peace so far away, it just seems a radically onerous separation where I have more rights than another. 

That I was driving toward Jerusalem, into the heat of the argument about the infamous Boycott Law, I could feel the constraining violence of the barbed wire itself, containing democratic dissent.  I was ill at ease.

Jerusalem calmed me.  I went for a walk, ate a slice, drank a beer.  But continued to ruminate on this deadening stalemate while voices of radicalization continue to rise.  Emboldened by the Boycott Law, Foreign Minister Lieberman set his sights on NGOs which criticize Israel.  Rabbi Dov Lior continued to puff out his chest in pride.  Knesset member Zeev Elkin seems to outmaneuver Netanyahu.  Apparently it's okay to make dissent about the Palestinian territories a crime but it's not a crime to write a book saying it's religious acceptable to kill non-Jews. 

The moon hung low and broad in the sky; jasmine's aroma hovered in the night.  It seemed unjust to be thinking such thoughts.  The land, it's most humble inhabitants, deserve better.

Friday we drove the Fellows to Bet She'arim where Yehuda Ha Nasi is buried and then on to Tzipori, one of the first rabbinic towns established two thousand years ago after the Romans destroyed the 2nd Commonwealth.  Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai famously figured out that adaptation is a good thing.  In order to survive, you have to compromise, give a little, and build a new structure to support and contain the eternal ideas of Torah. 

There seems to be, among some leaders here, a distinct lack of flexibility; a troubling absence of openness to change; a disturbing attachment to the idea of an infallible nation that corrupts more than it inspires.

We ended the day in Zfat, where we have been for Shabbat and a couple following days.  In Zfat, the Chief Rabbi recently led a political movement *not* to rent apartments to Israeli Arabs who attend a local community college.  A Hesder Yeshiva and Chabad Yeshiva house young men with opinions about Arabs that are openly racist.  Other Zfat natives slowly wander about, intoxicated by the Kabbalah, numerology and healing, displaying an other-worldliness that is both spiritual and material:  Zfat's poverty rate is quite high.

Seekers sang songs to welcome the Sabbath.  Souls seemed to catch fire with a love for God.  But deep within my own soul, another fire simmered, its flames drawing a message on the dark cave of my despair:  Be Concerned.  Be Troubled.  Find a way out.

At Shabbat lunch, I heard from two different Israelis in two separate conversations that the current vogue among some Israelis is to buy foreign passports.  Poland, Hungary, Romania.  "You can see the advertisements in the newspaper."

Astounded, I thought back to my experience at Ben Gurion a few days earlier.  It's precisely now when we oughtn't leave, I said.  It's just what Arabs want, I heard myself say.  We Jews!  Ever international!  Too used to moving from one place to another! 

Home.  Still a complicated idea.

13 July 2011

JDUB and Aaron Bisman

When Aaron Bisman arrived on the NYU campus as a college freshman, he'd nattily dress himself up for Shabbos and lead davenning in the Conservative minyan with an uncontainable spirituality that belied his years and opened a window into his ambitious vision for a revitalization of Jewish life.  By the end of his sophomore year he was truly restless, starting coffee houses around campus, encouraging his peers to explore new Jewish artistic expression, expanding his search for creativity far beyond undergraduates on Washington Square.

When he went abroad to Hebrew University, he dove into the Israeli-Palestinian encounter through music, dee-jayed on mixed his own music, grew dreadlocks, faced the devastating loss of two dear friends in the brutal bombing atop Mount Scopus, and came back to New York with a singular dedication to build a dynamic memorial to friendship, a prayer for peace, and a boundless idea for new Jewish music, culture and social gatherings.  His friend Matt became Matisyahu and JDUB Records was born.

Since JDUB announced the closing of its operations after a remarkably productive nine year run, the Jewish social media sites that Aaron helped pioneer to bring together countless young Jews in the altneuland of their own identity project have mourned this end, paid tribute, and wished Aaron and his staff the best of luck as they chart new waters.  Aaron has been on every panel, in every cohort, a grantee of virtually every major fund for innovation in the Jewish community in the 21st century--basically flung around the world and back, around the world and back again, to speak to older leaders about the necessity for supporting the promise of a new generation's Jewish Identity Project.

Well before the age of 35, Aaron accomplished more than most in a much longer career--always with an unrestrained optimism, a depth of purpose, and his own spiritual model of living a life of Jewish religious integrity.  In his spare time he founded Altshul, a thriving indie-minyan in Brooklyn, which we proudly host at CBE, and which sustains me personally whenever I have the privilege of praying with them.

I'll miss Aaron's parties--JDUB and Brooklyn Jews hosted those first Jewltides at Southpaw.  But I have great faith in whatever next will be for my favorite Jewish dynamo. 

Congratulations Aaron!  You remain an inspiration.

12 July 2011

For the Sake of Heaven

E.M. Lilien
It ought to be clear to objective observers that Israel's "Boycott Law" is a mind-boggling embarrassment to organized Jewry's proud tradition of argument and dissent in matters both sacred and secular for the past three thousand years.

From teaching children a basic principle in Hebrew school that the Sages cherish disagreement for the Sake of Heaven; to welcoming converts to Judaism who are transformed by the religious notion that Asking Questions is an essential precept of faith in relationship to God history, we proudly embrace this idea of Sacred Dissent.  Is there a greater exemplar of this than the Biblical patriarch Abraham, who famously challenges God over the potential for loss of innocent life at Sodom and Gomorrah, "shall the Judge of all the Earth not rule with Justice?"  Not only do we Jews argue, we argue with God!

In the modern era, the early Zionist movement was an expression of Jewish democracy in action, spanning Jews from across Europe coming together in unity to come home, giving voice in the parliamentary political system they established to the voices across Jewish life--from the fundamentally religious to the radically secular, while also proudly extolling the equal rights of Israel's Arab citizens as well. 

These are the pillars of a certain narrative that present circumstances may be rapidly eroding.  While it's clear that this supposed objective reality gives way to a more realistic portrayal of a Jewish life and civilization--unified at times during threats to our very existence but more often than not, expressing a tenuous hold on notions of internal Jewish unity at a time of great crisis:  the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel.

A lack of Jewish communal unity on this very question has created the kinds of corrosive divisions that lead to such outrages like the "Boycott Law" passed by Israel's Knesset or the Jerusalem Mayor, Israeli Finance Minister and leading companies showing up to support a major Haredi economic conference while tacitly supporting the repression of women.  

For sake of argument--since this is an internal Jewish matter--we're going to leave out of this brief any justified claims against Palestinians for their own failures these last decades.  Let them clean up their house while we clean up ours.

Some rabbinic authorities burned Maimonides books; Spinoza was excommunicated; internal Zionist strife led to the assault on the Altalena, probably the most famous example of modern, internal Jewish political strife, until Yigal Amir murdered Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in part, with the rabbinic approval of Rabbi Dov Lior, back in the news these days.

These are the ugly parts of our history--the painful, deeply damaging parts of our history--that we nonetheless face because to be "a light unto the nations" means demonstrating not only the good that God demands of us but by righting the wrongs we do as well.  Making an account of who we are for all to see.  Chosenness, if you will, comes with a price.

I'll be the first to admit the inherent contradiction in my argument; even the infuriating stance of a comfortable Diaspora Jew pronouncing on Israel's direction as a tourist, a visitor abroad.  There is no question it's an issue.  The critical mass of Diaspora Jewry that may have pushed for a more democratic Israel; that would have voted to restrict the Haredization of Israeli religious life; that would have pushed the government on the issue of stopping settlement expansion, has, for the most part, fought from the sidelines and it's undeniable how this annoys or inflames certain Israelis.  In delusional moments of hope, I dream of a mass Aliyah of progressive Diaspora Jews, taking up the justifiable position of every Prime Minister I've ever heard speak:  You want to change Israel?  Move here.

They're not wrong.

And so we in our pain and embarrassment sit here; while there, things seem to be up in smoke.

I'm against the Boycott Movement.  But in the great annoyance of having to engage it in my home neighborhood of precious Park Slope, I justify the engagement by arguing that such a dialogue at least strengthens the democratic fabric and therefore core legitimacy of the Jewish state.  Hopefully, God willing (we need all the strength in this debate about dissent we can get) the Attorney General and Supreme Court will overturn this odious law, so we can get back to arguing for the Sake of Heaven.

11 July 2011

Time is a Wave

Time is a wave.

Light travels that way; so does sound.  Why not time?

I interrupted my month in Jerusalem with a quick journey home to Brooklyn for thirty-six hours, a noble adventure, indeed.  Breakfast in Jerusalem; lunch in Tel Aviv; and dinner aboard a plane, flying backwards into the wind of time-zones, one day diminishes while another strengthens and then, in time, darkens and diminishes as well.

The book I am reading is David Grossman's new novel, "Falling Out of Time," about parents grieving for a lost son.  On Sunday, with the Fellows, we stood over Uri Grossman's grave in Jerusalem, while a faculty member, Ilana Kurshan, read her moving translation of Grossman's eulogy for his son Uri, who died during the last operation of the Second Lebanon War five years ago.  Flying back in time over continents and oceans, one's consciousness about the temporary nature of our existence is heightened and deepened as we pass over mountain tops and bodies of water.

Reading Grossman, I am acutely reminded of the timelessness of mourning.  The dialogue between husband and wife, mother and father, and their dead son, takes place in what feels like time beyond time, a memory ghost--a smell, a touch, a voice, the spark of an eye--appearing as presence, is in an instant gone, consumed by time.  Greedy time.  Voracious time.  Relentless time.  Uncontainable time.

I think back to times in my own life in which I've mourned.  Grandfather, grandmother, father, friend.  Eruptions in time, disturbances, their events are their own assertion of an existential principle:  Time Belongs to No One.  We live in Time.  We die in Time.  Active dying, we know, is one such process where the curtain is open, however briefly (or sometimes, agonizingly long) and we can see up close the experience of that submission to Time.  With the taste of death in our mouths, we go hungrily searching for signs of life, only to discover they're like clues already gone, consumed into Time.

As the sun went down Sunday evening in Jerusalem, the muezzin's call in a neighboring Arab village layered time.  A short "time" later, Jews entered a small shul to pray their evening prayers.  As the hour "struck," (another insertion, eruption in Time) the news was read on the radio and a church bell rang.  "Eternal, what is man, that You have regard for him, or the son of man, that You make an account of him?  Man is like a breath; his days are as a shadow that passes away.  Eternal, bow Your heavens and come down; touch the mountains that they may smoke.  Cast forth lightning and scatter them; send out Your arrows and discomfit them.  Stretch forth Your hands from on high; rescue me, and deliver me out of many waters, out of the hand of strangers."*

Time's waves in Jerusalem, at times a symphony of profoundest beauty; at other moments, like the irreducible static of cellphone towers, asserting a ridiculous and temporary hegemony.  The magnetic allure of national and religious narrative is the very structure we need, the totality that organizes our otherwise lost and un-moored selves.

And then landing in New York at 9 pm when in my mind 9 pm on this day already happened.  And being confronted with another organization of Time, Nation, Narrative, and Self.  Travelers, airport workers, passport control agents, dispatchers, and taxi drivers from every place on earth one can imagine.  More Narrative Static than anyone can comprehend; and so the universe of time that is America simply reduces particular national identities to mere particle waves.  And in the parking lot, I see the flag waving.  How does that happen--really?  Nervously (whistling in the dark?) I check my watch.

Outside the terminal in Queens it is warm and damp; the waters off the bay are a redolent presence.  In the back of the cab, the "air" is too "conditioned" and so I roll down the window and take in Atlantic Avenue, Eastern Parkway, Plaza Street.  At home, putting down my bags, I am received by unconditional love, deeply moved and appreciative, humbled by its presence, still hearing the whispered voices of Grossman, searching in Time for a loss he'll never re-gain.

It is a thought, a burden, an obligation at times too great for any one person to bear alone and so one sees, in a submission to Time, that its waves soften edges, change reality's shape, making both a place, and time, for us to live.

10 July 2011

"I Didn't Count You Either"

We had climbed up Masada at 5 am, arrived at the top and assessed the situation.  Light breeze, sun rising over Jordan, the Dead Sea coming into view.  I immediately transitioned into my annual fantasy of waking up on Masada, a simple worker on Yigal Yadin's dig from 1963-65.  I had this thought, of time collapsing, back to birth, what one is born into.  King's "I Have a Dream" speech is delivered (and he's preceded by Rabbi Joachim Prinz; Kennedy is assassinated; Koufax sets a World Series record for strikeouts; "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" is released; and Yigal Yadin begins his full excavation of Masada.  One goes through life uncovering its meaning, excavating events that occur independently of oneself but from which sustaining ideas will be wrought in the journey hence.

The Fellows scatter--those who have come to daven move toward a place in the shade; those who have chosen not to pray form a kind of social mass, eat breakfast, kibbutz, take pictures.  I dole out a couple sandwich halves like a surrogate dad and hear my name being called.  "Andy, we need a tenth for a minyan."

I alight to my duty!  Masada!  Born into service on this rocky mountain top!  There may be no more ostraca to find but at least I can unearth a mitzvah or two.  I arrive at the appointed location to discover I'm the tenth male and that there are 4 females as well.  They have all already begun prayer.  All the young men are wearing tefillin (Yadin found tefillin up here, I think) and two of the four women are wearing it as well.  Since I knew I wasn't planning on praying this morning, I have nothing but a book.  I sit down to read.

The tefilot were beautiful.  Gentle as the air that moved about atop the mountain and the leader's voice was genuine and sweet.  One of the Fellows, a Cohen, blessed his friends with the traditional Priestly Benediction, hidden under his tallis.  ( He later described learning this custom from his father, underneath his father's tallis, a thousands year rite passed on to another generation.  I wondered how many cohanim are in CBE and would they like to learn the Blessing and convey it to the community this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  I make a mental note. )

Prayers finish.  We move on.  Tour the mountain top, hit the old favorites.  Tell some good stories.  At the far western end of the site, we shout names into the hills, hearing echos, ephemeral attachments to eternity.

Twenty-four hours later I host Fellows for Shabbat lunch, a weekly BYFI tradition.  We eat well--supplemented by salads from my favorite Moroccan cook on Emek Refaim.  At the end of lunch, one of the young women who had not been counted in the minyan of the young men but prayed beside them nonetheless, wearing her tefilin, fulfilling her obligation, talking to God, said, "Rabbi, I noticed you didn't pray with us on Masada but you did pray in shul last night and this morning.  Why is that?"  I explained my reasoning--I had planned to be with the kids who didn't pray that morning, so didn't bring my tools of the trade, my bat and glove, as it were.  But when I was asked to make the minyan, I moved without hesitation.

"But you know the women didn't count yesterday," she said smiling.  "But that's okay, because even though you counted for the guys without even praying, I didn't count you either."

We both laughed.

Another excavation.  Another uncovering of an old tradition on an ancient mountaintop, given new meaning for a new time.

This is why I get so much joy out of teaching on this program each summer.  The Fellows searching inquiry into Judaism, their relationship to it, and their sense of evolving obligations to peoplehood, language, custom and land, are uniquely inspiring.

09 July 2011

Carry the Water

I think it would be impossible to calculate how many Reform rabbis I saw at Shira Hadasha, an "Orthodox, Feminist Congregation in Jerusalem" this past Shabbat.  Mehitza separating women from men but equal roles in the leading of the service, including Torah reading and aliyot shared by men and women and some of the most extraordinarily beautifully singing on Shabbat that one can find.

Is the movement concerned?  Interested?  Is there someone trying to figure out what this means?

I'll speak for myself and say something that in study sessions back in Brooklyn I openly share with congregants:  that Reform rabbis often live split spiritual lives:  they lead a community in one mode of engagement with music and tradition while craving, desiring, needing more Hebrew and more liturgy whenever they can get it in order to feed their soul.

It's a dilemma:  to serve a community not particularly close to Torah on a daily basis in order to bring them closer to Torah and sacrificing one's own desire for that intimate proximity in order to make way for others to get closer themselves.

My twenty-four hours at Shira Hadasha had its share of mundane moments, don't get me wrong.  Some guy stood too close to me and dangled his plastic shopping bag too close to my head; a sweet child, just learning to walk, engaged me in a game of peek-a-boo; during a brief break in the action, I caught up with a new friend on the goings-on of his week.  But these moments were overwhelmingly, well, overwhelmed, by some deep incidents of connection and transcendence in the carefully choreographed aesthetic aspiration of reaching God through prayer--Hebrew prayer--in Jerusalem.

And as I looked around the room I saw an overflowing cup of Reform rabbis absorbing it all.

Do the communities know this?  Does the movement's leadership?  Is there even dialogue about it?  What does it mean that some rabbis starve themselves spiritually in order to bring others closer and when they are away from their congregations, they choose to pray in settings that they don't work in?

Is that disconnect good?  Bad?  Healthy?  Abnormal?

Is there a way to answer these questions?

Pulling the curtain back on the paradoxical lives of Reform rabbis, I'll admit that services (the very name!  what is this:  the concierge desk at a hotel?) are work; but davenning in shul is an intensely personal endeavor that requires work but of an entirely different variety.  In rabbinical school, we were critiqued over how we led services.  It was considered bad if you didn't smile and make meaningful eye contact with the congregation.  Conversely, if I ran into--and I'm saying face-to-face--the men and women who led davenning and read Torah today at shul, I wouldn't know them from Isaac, Mayer or Wise.  They fulfilled their role anonymously, as it were, with the desired humility sought after by the prophet Micah in this week's haftarah:  agency for the prayers of those gathered nearby.  Not about us, but them.  Ironically, it's our service for them that sublimates ourselves, while (ironically?) smiling ourselves out at the congregation in order to lead them to a place we know, or have been to, or want to bring them to; but just can't get there until we "get away."  Strange goings-on, I'm sure you'll agree.

I thought of the collective hunger of my colleagues.  I wondered if they're spiritually lonely.  I wondered if for them, leading services back home is just another way of teaching; and so they justify the seeming separation between the selves that seek and the selves that enable the seeking of others through this duality.  There are so many ways to serve God.  Maybe a couple weeks in an Orthodox shul in Jerusalem is enough.

I dunno:  from the looks on my colleagues' faces, they were happy to continue to be sustained.  Their cups overflowed.

Reform Judaism--liturgically--spent so much of the past century excising Tradition and with the past generation and a half of corrections, it will be interesting to see where things land in another 40 years.  That there is a Feminist Orthodox Congregation in Jerusalem questions so many of Reform's assumptions that it's not impossible to imagine Reform itself emerging in time as a very different movement from where it began.

A simple man from Wisconsin, I am.  Proud to carry the water.

Just keep the water coming, God, keep the water coming.

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.

07 July 2011

Opening the Shades

I saw Aharon Appelfeld at Tmol Shilshom tonight, talking about his writing and reading from his new book, "Mighty Waters."  I've never heard him read before and it was particularly gratifying to hear him read and speak in Hebrew.  Because he didn't grow up speaking the language and only learned it when he arrived in Israel after the war, a refugee from the Carpathian mountains, there is a concise yet other-worldly quality to his language, a poetry rendered as prose, a mysteriousness set in the stable structure of a tree trunk's wood. 

Anyway, there was one story that Appelfeld told near the end of his talk that I wanted to share--it seems particularly poignant, given that my own meager ideas are conveyed through the glowing translucence of a screen.

Someone in the audience asked him about his writing process (authors always get those questions) and his answer was beautiful.

"Let me tell you a story," he said.  "My grandfather, whom I often watched pray in the morning, once told me that before he can pray, he opens the shades to the house.  This way, there is no separation between himself and the Creator.  Therefore," Appelfeld continued, "when I write, I do so with a pen and paper.  Art is a totally organic process.  And paper along with pencil or pen are as close as I can come to a totally natural process that has no "shades" drawn between me and my creation--like a computer screen."  No separation indeed.

He then held his hands in the air.  Hands which have written his books that I've read.  Hands I'd never seen gesture before until tonight; hands that led a boy of eight to flee when the Nazis arrived; brought him to Israel; became the tools of a trade that would lower the shades to his past, looking through his grandfather's eyes, out an imagined window in the Carpathian mountains, conjuring stories of meaning and memory to those of who were not there.

His eyes sparkled; his hands gestured; his trunk was sturdy and strong.  The wind of fate--the Hebrew language--blowing through his branches.