12 August 2011

This and That

In this week's Torah portion, the Shma Yisrael--שמע ישראל יי אלוהינו יי אחד--Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is One--makes its official appearance.  Our purest expression of the monotheism that was Judaism's unique gift to the world.  We recite it twice daily, as the paragraph following the Shma suggests--ובשכבך ובקומך--when we lie down at night and when we rise in the morning.

In Reform Judaism, for the better part of the last century, Reform Jews have recited the Shma while standing as a public expression of faith, doctrine, pronounced creed.  And Reform prayerbooks have, additionally, eliminated from the liturgy the paragraph following the Shma (the original Torah text of which appears in next week's Torah portion) mostly because in its articulation of why one ought to observe God's commandments, there is an explicit articulation of the Biblical doctrine of reward and punishment, to wit, if you follow My commandments, I will give rain in its proper season, God warns; but if you don't, the earth you hope to cultivate for sustenance will not yield its fruit in its proper season.

It's always struck me as a regrettable loss that the early Reformers excised such ideas, depriving generations of Reform Jews the opportunity to engage prayer and Torah text as metaphor, and especially in our own day with fears and threats of global warming, of engaging the notion of how we treat the earth with a sense of the sacred.

In my own daily prayer, I use a traditional siddur and therefore daven these words--not believing that God willfully punished us (or the people of Sub-Saharan Africa) with drought because of sin; rather, as a focus on our stewardship of the earth in general.  Additionally, as the Sages suggest, while the Shma serves to allow the individual to declare his or her own relationship to the God of Israel in the singular (since the paragraph following the Shma is written in the singular) the prayer for accepting responsibilities for the commandments (the excised paragraph in Reform liturgy) is written in the plural!  This tension is a very real tension in liberal Judaism, that is to say, the tension between a spirituality of the self versus a spirituality of the community, a topic that, frankly, we don't talk about enough but one in which I would like to devote considerable time to in the weeks ahead.

Whenever I return from Israel, I am always acutely aware of the contrast between the communal nature of Jewishness in the Land of Israel as opposed to the less shared aspects of an American Judaism.  We speak of "communities" and "congregations;" or we might talk about "my minyan" or "my family," but in our daily Jewish discourse, we often lack a sense of the collective, what many people are today wrestling with as the notion of "Peoplehood," an unfortunate term, when you get right down to it, since it already represents a conceptual step removed from what it is meant to be referring to:  עם ישראל--the Jewish People.

What I want to say here is that when wrestling with my soul and with my God, I prefer the more challenging ideas, not the purely rational ones, and I prefer to do it with others.  The valorous, truth-seeking missiles of rational battle, embers occasionally still found burning from the raging fires of 19th century thought, are dichotomies that are rarely any longer very useful.

It's this and that.  And so, as we approach our Torah-given declaration of God's oneness this week, while preparing to bind ourselves to our fellow Jews next week, here are some words of inspiration for having it both ways.  Truth and metaphor.  Rationality and mystery.  The Jew and the Jewish People.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

--Robert Frost


11 August 2011


Gov Scott Walker (with the microphone)  Photo by Rick Wood of Journal Sentinel
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker showed up at the State Fair yesterday to help with the crossbreed livestock bidding, always a good time, and offered a hand of reconciliation and bipartisan spirit to a fairly toxic political atmosphere not just in the Midwest but in much of the country.  It wasn't really a spirt of bipartisanship that cut $467 million dollars from health care for the poor.  It remains to be seen how that will play out.  People are really concerned, dissatisfied, and deeply anxious about the direction of the nation.  Volatile markets and an uncertain job outlook has millions worried.  A simple sidewalk conversation in our neighborhood in Brooklyn is no different.  We're looking for leadership, courage, and compassion for the poor--it shouldn't be that tall an order to fill.

In my own daily study, I'm taking another look at the Mishnah, an early collection of rabbinic law, and in particular I'm interested in early forms of ethical and moral mandate to care for the poor.  In the first several tractates--Brachot, Peah, and Demai--we find that care for the poor and our obligations to others economic well-being are expressed through the tithing of food and agriculture--a Biblical commandment that was honed and refined by the Sages, living nearly 1500 years after Moses received Torah from God on Mount Sinai.

One question that is often on my mind as I look at these ancient texts--especially today, when the latest Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry likens the payment of taxes to a system of slavery under Pharaoh--is whether the Sages would have found this adamant opposition to taxes as onerous as certain religio-political leaders like Governor Perry do.  Their worlds are so different and nearly impossible to compare but nevertheless, it's a useful exercise.

Peah, for instance, is very certain about making sure that Jewish society has an accounting of the poor among them when making their determinations about allocations of obligation.  Do a proper counting; no skimming off the top of your own harvest; and make sure that the conditions in which you leave food for the poor to gather are not dangerous conditions that would put them at any risk of hurt or pain.  Both their physical and emotional well-being are taken into strict consideration.  The humiliation of being on assistance is deep and the Sages seem to have been quite sensitive to that.

In contrast is what appears to be a very callous approach to the needy that we are seeing expressed today.  The value we begin from in American political discourse is not the language of obligation to others--especially those less fortunate--but to an obligation to a more neutral financial bottom line.  "Balanced budgets" or "individual rights" expressed through "no increase in taxes" as the prevailing winds of our discourse, while those least fortunate among us are left to drift and beg, like chaff beaten from the harvested wheat of our own good fortune.

Mishnah Demai offers a heartening definition about one who is נאמן or trustworthy/reliable.  Of course, from spiritual perspective, the Hebrew word נאמן has as its root a word quite familiar to English speakers--אמן--Amen.  Witness:  "He who undertakes to be trustworthy/reliable is one who is assumed to have tithed all his produce."  Seem mundane?  Imagine if it were to read, "Who is a Trustworthy Citizen?  One who proudly pays his taxes because he knows that in doing so, he is contributing to the uplift of the poor and least fortunate among us."

נאמן.  אמן.


10 August 2011

Tisha B'Av Remarks

adapted from remarks I shared on Erev Tisha B'Av at CBE
8 August 2011 :: 9 Av 5771

Prior to the rallies in Israel over the past weeks, the most disturbing use of the Hebrew word צדק
is usually found in graffiti that reads, כהנא צדק, "Kahane was right," a disturbing endorsement of the racist policy espoused by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated violence toward and mass expulsion of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.  On walls and near bus stops around the country, one also occasionally sees graffiti that reads, מות לערבים, or "Death the Arabs," an equally reprehensible expression I saw and heard chanted on a recent visit to the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.  We have seen the decrying of campaigns against human rights organizations; read disturbing accounts of prostitution and drug abuse and organized crime in Israel; and have watched the nation of Israel struggle with the moral questions around whether or not to deport Sudanese refugees and their children, who are living in South Tel Aviv.  These are the nasty ways that Jews act in their own state, a moral reckoning we have no choice but facing on, of all days, Tisha B'Av.  Long ago the Sages decreed that Jerusalem fell not once but twice due not only to outside forces and cruel, tyrannical empires--but more important, Jerusalem fell twice because of our own sin, our own moral backsliding.  These difficult and disturbing religious message is very much at the mournful center of our commemoration of Tisha B'Av:  What we do to one another is the real reckoning of this day.

To be sure, there is no shortage of external threats to Israel.  A nuclear Iran; international isolation and boycott; the political double-standards where it seems Israel is always wrong and other nations are not judged as harshly; the fear of the demographic time-bomb, challenging the idea of Jewish and democratic state.  And of course, the potential dangers of an unstable new Palestinian state as a neighbor.  What if it doesn't work out?  What if it really does become a military problem, or a base of terror?  What then?

Tisha B'Av pushes us in two directions--inward, to examine our own behavior and how our individual actions effect the greater collective; and outward, to be cognizant of and vigilant about the existential threats that are beyond us, seemingly outside our realm of control.

It seems counter-intuitive to sit on the floor, in the dark, fasting and reading old voices in a mournful tune.  But such is the nature of our Jewish practice:  we take our personal and national history down to the lowest, darkest places, intrepid in our commitment to examine it all.

The Talmud locates the origins of Tisha B'Av not in the Babylonian destruction of 586 BCE or the Roman destruction of 70 CE but rather in an incident in Torah--when בני ישראל are told to scout the land and the first spies return with the grim news that there are giants in the land.  We are nothing--אפס--they exclaim, and the diminishing of their own selves is, in God's eyes, their great sin.  This deep cynicism, this spreading of an "evil report" is poison to the communal enterprise.  It erodes faith and good will.  It saps the community of the strength it needs to prevail.

The Sages seem to be suggesting that national calamity occurs when our personal failings prevail.  National disaster strikes when we refuse to see ourselves as capable of rising to the great challenges that face us.  Who can not help but think of the frustration we feel at failures of vision and leadership in Washington during these trying times?  Who can not help but think of the frustration we feel at the failures of vision and leadership in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ramallah as well?

If national calamity comes from personal failures, where are those who would lead from a place of personal integrity?

During these seemingly intolerably hot days of August/Av, where the sun radiates excessive and withering heat, one can only imagine the grim horrors faced by our people in ancient days when slaughter and destruction took place.  The fires of Av are foreboding, dangerous, and destructive.  However, the Torah reading for Tisha B'Av morning offers a solution.

Torah reminds us that fire not only destroys but gives life; it doesn't only burn up but in fact is the metaphor for morality and truth.

"Out of heaven God made you to hear God's voice, that the Eternal might instruct you; and upon earth God has made you to see the great fire, and you heard God's voice from the midst of the fire."

The fires of Av are here transformed into the fires of the Burning Bush, the fires of Sinai, the flames of Torah--from an agent that burns to an agent of hearing, of knowing, the right way, the way of truth, the way of justice.

Despite threats both internal and external to the ongoing miraculous enterprise of the Jewish state, thriving in all its achievements and its imperfections as a testimony to the unique and unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent weeks in order to lead themselves, to see themselves not as grasshoppers but as men and women in command of their own destiny, insisting with strength and with pride that when the word "justice" or צדק is used in the public sphere, its message is a message of true justice and righteousness.  With concern for the poor, for the worker, for the common, hard working citizen across generations, for the Israeli--Jewish and Arab--with concern that this people, this nation, demands social justice:  העם דורש צדק חברתי

Where this movement may go in the weeks and months ahead we do not yet know; but it is, without question, one of the great hopes to emerge from the Land of Israel in more than a generation.  May it unify our people, strengthen our resolve, and bring about an ever greater commitment to justice and peace.

May Zion and Jerusalem never be forgotten and may it never be desolate. May its light shine with the words of our tradition and the deeds of another generation which demands justice for all who seek it.  And may our deepest inner yearnings, with which we mightily reckon on Tisha B'Av, and our remembrances and commemoration of those who gave their lives for the Sanctification of the Divine Name so that we may one day live, be reconciled through this day of mourning and learning and commemoration, so that we may inhabit a home of justice and peace.

06 August 2011

Redeemed with Justice

 Shabbat Hazon, named for the moral vision of Isaiah ben Amotz, prophet in Israel during the 8th century BCE, is the last section of the prophetic writings we read before commemorating Tisha B'Av on Monday evening, a day of fasting and mourning for the Destruction of Jerusalem and its Temples--first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in 70 CE.  The violent, bloody, brutal despoliation of holy sites, a nation's capital, and its loyal inhabitants, as well as the back-stabbing, intrigue, betrayals and dirty double-crossing, are searingly and passionately warned against here by Isaiah.

"Hear O heavens and give ear, O earth, for the Eternal has spoken; children I have reared and brought up, and they have rebelled against Me.  The ox knows its owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel does not know, My people does not consider...Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate, as overthrown by floods."

Isaiah's calculus is simple:  Societies go astray when they lose their moral bearings.  Neither leadership nor citizenry is exempt from the dire consequences of our individual and communal failings.  Offerings are hypocritical; pronouncements are empty.  God, through the prophet, wants results.

"Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow."

When societies are built upon their care for the least advantaged, the universe is made right.  Its calculus, its balance, is restored.

We have, here in the United States, only gained but a brief respite from the pyrrhic victory of Congress' recent debt-ceiling deal.  The people remain greatly dissatisfied with the lack of vision emanating from Washington and there is a sense of dread for a real reckoning that will greatly and negatively effect millions of citizens, the poorest preparing to be the most severely challenged.

The reticence to fight for what is right--to demand that just as the poor concede on entitlements so must the rich pay a greater share in taxes--has lost to the more damaging narrative of American exceptionalism:  Freedom as Individual Rights to do what we want, when we want, where we want.

Rick Perry holds a Prayer Rally in Houston; Snooki and her friends shop in Florence; Danny Meyer expands his cheeseburger empire.  An Allied helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan, killing 39, including 31 Americans.  And that's just today's paper.  The volatile mixture of lousy entertainment, gourmet junk-food, pandering religio-governors, and a desperately impossible war mission is, to my mind, the quintessential sign of an empire in decline.  If you want a sense of just how delusional Governor Perry is, look at this video, in which his articulation of Biblical principles is that we should save our money and not the "Pharaoh" of the government take our money.  Outlandish!

That our leadership lacks the humility to understand how far we've gone from being able to focus our ideals and directions on a shared path forward is gravely concerning.  Isaiah warns the Jewish people in this week's haftarah that without a concern for widow and the orphan--above all else--societies can be made to crumble.  Fortuitously, during the Three Weeks of Warning leading up to Tisha B'Av, the Israeli collectivity has grown in its commitment to reflect upon the values of Zionism and where necessary, re-take the vision of the State and set it, again, on the right path.

Let's say 180-200,000 people take to the streets tonight in Tel Aviv and across the country.  The American equivalent would be  about 9 million people rallying in Washington and across the country--for equal rights; economic justice; fair housing; a more robust education.  Imagine that.

At the very least, for all those ringing their hands about Israel's future, one should be greatly heartened by this movement, which, so far, shows very few signs of diminishing in strength. 

The stakes for Israel are enormously high and in these challenging times, the population is awakening to forging a path forward, unleashing an energy and optimism that has certain people like Shlomo Avineri harkening back to the founding of the state in 1948.

"Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her with righteousness."  The young in Israel have taken up this cause.  May they continue to find strength in the days and weeks ahead.  It remains to be seen, alas, what the young here America are willing to say and do in order to make their ideals truly known.  Governor Perry will have us pray for rain and lower taxes.  Surely, there's a better idea out there this weekend.

Meanwhile, I'm going to the rally for social justice in Israel in Times Square.

05 August 2011

Important Developments

--from the Wisconsin State Fair

04 August 2011

Even Your Play

that's me, bottom right; outfielder poet is second row, second from the right
Years after playing together on a Little League team (Bay Federal Savings and Loan Phillies) that had a nice run for championship in Southeastern Wisconsin during a summer in the mid-1970s, I was sitting with a former teammate in a dorm cafeteria, talking about catching flyballs.  He was an outfielder on our team who, in college, was an aspiring poet.  He spoke, rather spontaneously, about the weighted silence in the moment when the ball leaves the bat and moves upward, like mercury and then accelerates downward toward the fielder as a moment of Divine Reckoning.  "As if the silence of the grass wasn't enough, now I stand radically alone, a ball, my Fate, hurdling toward me.  In an instant, God's voice calls, judging me."

We burst out laughing.

Reading the Piaseczner Rebbe this afternoon, I came across a moving passage about recognizing the need to develop play and joy when teaching Torah to a child:  "You love to play with your friends, to be wild and mischievous sometimes.  Along we come and approach you with the intent of depriving you of your childhood, making you silent, sedentary, and old before your time.  This is absolutely not so.  You will remain young.  You will go on playing with your friends.  And you will still reach the spiritual goal we've portrayed.  You just have to know how to play and how to be wild and to realize and to have faith at the same time that God's kingship extends everywhere, and that he sees everything, even your play."

Though no longer children exactly, the Bronfman Youth Fellows, whom I have the privilege of teaching each summer, received some of this wisdom from the Piaseczner Rebbe when I subjected them to my heresies and playful remarks in the midst of addressing utterly serious matters of Torah, Prayer, Archaeology and Politics in the Land of Israel.  This idea suffuses what we are attempting to do with education in general at CBE--in Yachad, in our Israelis in Brooklyn program--making matters both joyous and serious at the same time.  Digging deep and laughing often is essential to falling in love with Judaism.  I think of my own teachers--Saposnik, Mosse, Hertzberg--and how radically funny each of them could be, the humor lighting up the darkness with wisdom.  Teaching young adults on the liminal road between childhood and adulthood, this transitional pedagogic awareness is essential.  A young adult needs to be guaranteed that becoming a serious Jew will not impede or even destroy the irreducible desire to have fun.

In re-watching "A Serious Man" with the Fellows this summer ( a movie I hated the first time and grew to like the second time ) it occurred to me that between "the goy's teeth" and Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love" ("when the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies") there is both a searing critique of what happened to American Judaism in the Suburban 60s and 70s as well as kernel of hope for a return to joy, laughter, and play in the Field of Torah.

I was at third base during most of those years and when not there, in the driveway, shooting hoops after school while most friends were shuttled back and forth to Hebrew school.  Re-reading the Piaseczner Rebbe reminded me, however, of how present God actually was in those places.  How I joked with him in the field between pitches, slashed around his man-to-man defense on the asphalt.  All the while in dialogue with his Otherness, there, present, in the still solitary silences of my developing youth.  A silence that is wisdom, illuminated by laughter.

"You just have to know how to play and how to be wild and to realize and to have faith at the same time that God's kingship extends everywhere, and that he sees everything, even your play."

03 August 2011

The Collective Speaks

My Sikh cabdriver pulled up alongside an African-American singing along to Gospel in her car as we were driving along Eastern Parkway at 6:45 this morning.  Foreclosure signs on abandoned buildings in East New York; the cartoonish Lubavitcher Rebbe's face, schneering down from above a new development (I should think the American Messiah invests in real estate in New York) verdant London Planes arching overhead, hiding the vast amount of space that is America.

Back from the Land of the Savage, where the citizenry is taming itself for the road ahead--democracy, welfare, housing and more; and into the Land of the Free, where the recent round of budget cuts and deficit reduction are a foreboding prophecy of a greater showdown in 2012, extreme voices battling it out for America's soul:  is this a nation primarily founded on the defense of Individual Rights or can one speak of a Collectivity without wild accusations of betrayal and treason? 

In the Land of the Savage, they say, you can still die for God and country.  Here in the Land of the Free and the Brave, one's violet death is more random, more senseless.  The N.R.A. is set to sue the Obama Administration over a federal rule demanding that gun dealers report bulk sales of semi-automatic weapons on the Mexican border.  Yeah:  that's exactly what the Founders had in mind with regard to the Second Amendment.  Gabrielle Giffords heroic walk on the House floor, demonstrating her incomprehensible fortitude and exceedingly profound act of generosity in voting for the debt-ceiling bill is a twin-set of sacrifices that will be lost on too many people.  America needs thousands of more leaders like her.

One is aware at such times, with the summer breeze moving the cars along on a care-free August morning in Brooklyn, that to care about God and country is so 19th century--why not get over it!  And so the ride into this chapter of civilization entails a certain degree of girding one's loins for the battle that, as Voltaire might have put it in the 18th century, the cultivation of one's garden, wherever one lives, is in fact the one humble goal we may be able to realize.  In the cramped and cranky hot land from which I just arrived, two people, madly in love with their God and their land, struggle mightily to find a way to live with one another while hear, in the vast universe of Sea to Shining Sea, there is so much of everything that we have just enough room, so it seems, be left alone to pursue whatever it is we want to pursue.  Your yoga class; a new cookbook; a tasty Elk sandwich.  I get it; I just don't know what it means.

At an intersection along Atlantic Avenue, the Sikh cab-driver noticed another Sikh selling copies of the Daily News to the commuters who briefly stopped on red.  They nodded to one another, knowingly, and I wondered if they knew one another from the cab-driver's workman-like runs to JFK each day, conveying travelers and citizens to and from their destinations; or if they merely nodded in the brotherhood of the hat and beard, immediately recognizable to one another as keepers of a flame not yet extinguished by America's irresistible force to accept your individuality so intensely you actually end up looking and acting like everyone else.  In my jet-lagged confusion I took brief comfort in the knowledge that in America, the Collective still agrees to stop on red and go on green (a couple of lawless joyriders on the Belt Parkway notwithstanding.)

Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz and Etgar Keret in Tablet place in to the right context the most exciting thing to happen in the Jewish world in the last 40 years.  American Jews would do well to pay attention--just when one despairs of the discomfort of particularities and old narratives, old and venerable cultures have a remarkable way of making themselves truly relevant yet again.

02 August 2011

You Let Me Keep Finding You!

To love is to accept complexity and paradox, and so, yet again, I write another letter to Jerusalem upon leaving. 

To a greater and greater degree with each visit, my heart weighs heavier and heavier, preparing for a return to Brooklyn.  Wisconsin raised me, Jerusalem made me, Brooklyn is where I live.  So I remain, ensnared, in a long chain of tradition of those who live both here and there, trapped in the ambiguities of life's complexity.  No place is perfect, but you, fair one, are the least imperfect of them all.

I read this week on line that a new restaurant opened on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope and it serves Elk Sandwiches.  Neighbors are arguing over bike lanes and hummus.  And Andrew Dice Clay has risen from the dead to perform in Coney Island.  The government to which I pay taxes can only make ends meet but cutting funding to the least fortunate in our society while continuing to reward the rich with low taxes and what constitutes leadership points hay-filled arms of atrophied blame of one to the other like the Scarecrow giving directions in the Land of Oz.

You, Jerusalem, seem to be preparing for a new day.  There is a calm to your face, a structured acceptance of some great challenges ahead, projecting a kind of giddy optimism that come what may, you'll emerge whole.  I walked today past two sites on Emek Refaim where terrorists blew themselves up, taking innocent lives with them, and as I read the dates, could not help but think of those countless lives that have been lost so that not only one but two nations may declare themselves to exist within the borders of your very being.  

It's extraordinary how empowering it is to see a people declare itself a nation, to see its heart swell with pride, its head raised in confidence, its shoulders straighten to face the opposition, come what may.  When Palestinian leadership finally decided to stop blowing themselves up and shedding innocent blood and instead organized, marched, moderated, and built a civil infrastructure in fragile partnership with their neighbors, the world finally began to get in line.  Just a few minutes before, I stopped while walking on King David Street to read the dedicatory plaque commemorating the spot where the Irgun killed 92 people at the King David Hotel, a British Mandate Headquarters, in 1946.  Just as the Zionists eventually split in a debate over tactics, one wonders if we're finally seeing a similar strategy being employed by Palestinians. 

I waited all summer long for Prime Minister Netanyahu to come up with a plan for dealing with the Palestinians plan to declare a state at the United Nations in September.  And to the best of my knowledge, the plan does not exist.  More than 140 nations are in favor and the only impediment to statehood will be the organized the resistance in the U.N. Security Council, making the gesture initially symbolic but ultimately, a fait accompli. 

Dumbfounded over the seeming lack of direction from the government, your citizens have taken to the streets to express their anger and dismay at the horrid economic conditions of the majority, struggling to make ends meet.  In classic fashion, we may find the wheels of democracy spinning and whirring in such a manner as to wield peace as a by-product of the necessity to make life livable.  In politics, as in love, fair one, there is self-interest.

I walked your streets at all hours of the night, counting your stairs, singing you to sleep and gently waking you with the birds at sunrise.  Your jasmine blossom and bougainvillea seduced me into mad, delusional epic monologues, recited while sitting in parks, narrating street names, re-tracing battle steps for control over your borders, praying under trees, kicking stones down abandoned streets, peeking into windows to see rooms lit with light from the Roman, Ottoman, British periods.  Sun-baked hands and dried, cracked lips of your poor begged for money and bread; cab drivers yelled and others cajoled; a local homeless man, insane and unhinged, wished me endless blessings when the new moon arrived.  Older friends have more gray hair; others have triumphed over cancer; and a few have quietly, and humbly, been laid to rest.  I drank your wine from the Galilee, beer from the Golan, and whenever possible, your impossibly sweet dairy and perfect melon left me sated, speechless, and then inspired to offer you words of blessing.

I love you.

I love your hard consonants and your penetrating vowels; your rusted gates and your ripening pomegranates; your winding, black roads and your blinding, dolomitic limestone.  I love the way you smother me all day with your impossible insistence, your debilitating heat, and then, like that, the way you walk into the room when the sun goes down, carrying an old-new wind from the Judean Hills that revives me, resurrects me, and lovingly, lays me down to sleep to dream of you all night long.

"A land so great and has so many roads
We meet for a moment, separate forever
A man asks but his legs fail
He can never find that which he has lost."

So wrote the Hebrew poet Rachel Bluwstein in her tragic sadness.

But you, Jerusalem, are always here.  You let me keep finding you!

01 August 2011

Lerski at the Israel Museum

If you're in Jerusalem between now and October, go see the exhibit on Helmar Lerski, called "Working Hands" at the Israel Museum.  Lerski was a German Jew (born Israel Schmuklerski) who is considered one of the most important portrait photographers of the 20th century, and I'm not just saying that because for a time he had a studio in Milwaukee.

His experimental techniques, stunning photographs and film-making of working Zionist pioneers in Palestine in the 1930s are amazing.

Lerski said, "I believe that the modern portrait photographer should strive, with the help of his own feeling for light, to express himself in a completely personal manner, create his own style, and deliver with every portrait his visiting card, so to speak, in order that he can be recognized in every one of his pictures, just as a Picasso, a Renoir, a Cezanne can be distinguished one from another."