20 February 2012

Me + Opposite of Me = Me

papyrus in the hula nature reserve
The Hebrew alphabet is the Phoenician alphabet's ancestral cousin, influenced by this coastal abjad, an ordering of consonants that move from right to left.  Bumping up against one another more than three thousand years ago, these two languages are one of any number of examples of the ways that cultures evolve symbiotically.  They grow, they borrow, they develop.  Both languages were often written on papyrus, the reedy plant that grows in the region and was a source for parchment.  One of the Phoenicians' centers for learning was Byblos (source word for 'book' and 'Bible') a very old town that sits on the Lebanese coast.  The Jews, of course, are the People of the Book.  Books are found in libraries, where everyone gets along.  No one ever seems to complain.

I wish, sometimes, that people were so easily explained.

Having read yet again about failed talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, this time the brokered talks in January hosted by Jordan, these two nations are yet again, not speaking the same language.  Of course this is not news.  Just more bad theater:  dull, familiar lines; worn-out roles by uninspired actors; predictable ending, in this case one that seems to slouch along, with befuddled spectators leaving their seats.

Yet.  It's critical for American Jews to keep coming back.  Despite hand-wringing assessments and studies about the waning concern for Israel among diaspora Jewry, engagement remains necessary and our just completed trip last week is a ringing example of why, despite serving a pulpit in Brooklyn, I remain committed to teaching about Jewish life and Jewish civilization at least twice a year from Jerusalem.

This comes from a few places.

As a young man I traveled to Jerusalem in order to root myself in my people.  I fell in love there--with the city, the people, the architecture, the sensory assault of its essence.  It's important, when teaching, to be passionate about your subject.  Jerusalem remains that fuel for me.

Jewish literacy is essential if the Jewish people are going to survive; and traveling to Jerusalem is a seminar on the centrality of text and narrative to Jewish life which, given the privilege of having a state to travel to, must never be ignored.  In the summers when I run there, I turn up the road toward Mount Zion at sunrise each day, nearly blinded by its radiance.  For generations, this willful infusion of light could only be imagined by diaspora Jewry.  I feel obligated to appreciate it--for them as well as myself.

Every time a Jew takes the Torah from the ark in the synagogue, the community reminds itself the words of Isaiah, "כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ה מירושלים/For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of the Eternal from Jerusalem."  I was acutely aware of this on my first visit and one day, while wandering about the city with a bag of freshly roasted almonds in my coat pocket, picked up from a vendor in Mahane Yehuda, I wandered into Steimatzky's bookshop to while away an hour in the poetry section where I discovered Yehuda Amichai.  "Jerusalem is a place where everyone remembers he's forgotten something but doesn't remember what it is.  And for the sake of remembering I wear my father's face over mine."  Reading that line in Hebrew from a small purple book entitled "Time," having just lost my father, my soul shook with a new reality of ancestral rootedness.

One of my teachers died a few years ago and I have inherited a few small volumes from his vast library.  One of them is a set of the collected articles of Asher Ginsberg, the Hebrew writer Ahad Ha'am.  Ginsberg left Hasidism and faith in Kiev for journeys to Vienna, Berlin and eventually Odessa where, in his thirties, he settled into a circle of other intellectuals, committed to fashioning a new Jew in an old land.  As one of the principle progenitors of cultural Zionism, Ginsberg saw the need for Zion to emanate with the light of learning; located the potential pitfalls of underestimating Arab intelligence and opposition; and consistently argued for the challenges ahead in establishing the reality of the first Jewish commonwealth in two thousand years.  After work for the Wissotszky Tea Company in London, Ginsberg settle in Tel Aviv, where he died in 1927.
History's layers.  Its cultural symbioses.  This inherited collection of Ginsberg's essays was printed in Berlin, by the Judischer Verlag, in 1921.  In that same year, the German Jewish industrialist and political thinker Walter Rathenau was in his final ascent as one of the Weimar Republic's leading Jews.  A non-Zionist and liberal integrationist, Rathenau was Minister of Reconstruction and then Foreign Minister, before being assassinated by German nationalists in 1922, an ominous beginning to the Nazi rise to power.    

The Times carries a story about an American Jewish hockey player, the grandson of a family nearly obliterated by the Shoah, who makes his living in Germany.  Said the player, Evan Kaufmann, of his career choice, "Obviously, you never want to forget but everybody deserves a second chance and a right to rectify their mistakes.

The sleepless among us cannot forget either; nor can we cease the granting, in our remembering, of the necessity for second, third, fourth, even fifth chances.  

In Zion itself, it seems, the leaders possess eyes with blinders, seeing only what one will allow oneself to see.  Narratives barely intersect.  Rather, they only clash and tumble, stubborn, like rocks--ossified reminders of matter that was once molten hot but now are immobile, cold and impenetrable to any compromise.  Time will pass by such obstinant behavior.  But not without new conflagrations, the wreckage from which future generations will write poems, sing songs, make art, give speeches, and add new sites to the tourist maps of places of interest to visit.  

The pith of the papyrus is beaten to a pulp, formed into parchment, absorbs the ink, and tells a story.  A felled tree becomes a book, depicting a man who writes on behalf of his people.  Bless the stone that beat the branch.  Bless the page that drank the ink.  And bless the man who read the words and saw not only himself but the opposite of himself in the mirrored mystery of time and existence.

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