28 February 2012

Her Strength, Her Endurance

The "state tree" in Wisconsin is the Sugar Maple.  It was decided by an election in 1893, when the schoolchildren of that fair land took a vote.  In 1948, at the state's centennial, students voted and the Sugar Maple won again.

Don't mess with the Sugar Maple.  It commands attention.

The small table with folding leaves that sat by the window of my grandma's kitchen, looking out upon a crabapple tree with two bird feeders--one for finches and one for the larger creatures like robins, jays and grackles ('damn grackles')--that small table, warm, rich, luminescent, deep maple brown, was the closest we had to an oracle in our family.  It was a table that virtually rose up to meet you, greet you, drew you in like the handshake of a country doctor:  strong, present, kind, assuring.

Enduring.  Classically, or so we believed, it was perpetually ready:  for a warm meal, warm drink; light meal, cool drink; game of cards; update on life; to write a letter or pay a bill.  To do nothing.  T stare out at the birds and do nothing.  Salt and pepper shaker.  Glass jar filled with lemon drops.  On occasion, a small cactus.

It was an efficient table.

When I turned eighteen, my mom and grandmother took a drive in the country and found a table at a garage sale.  It was covered, hideously, in several layers of paint, which they removed--with elbow grease--in short order.  After a series of encounters focused on stripping the wood, and sanding, finishing and re-finishing, I was presented with a desk for college.  "Beautiful," I said, appreciatively.  "Maple," my grandma said, obviously.   And today--30 years later--it sits in my office in Brooklyn.

My grandma's kitchen table now sits in my mom's apartment in Milwaukee, having been apportioned to her after grandma died some time ago.  She keeps there her sewing machine, her knitting gear, and other exemplars of her restless productivity, her birds, as it were, her trees in bloom out the window.

"I couldn't sleep the other night and I wanted to sit at the table and talk to my mother!" said my mother to me last night on the phone.  Damn!  Did I hear that!

"The Maple Oracle," I deadpanned.

"Yes," said she.

"What did you want to hear?"  I asked.

"Her strength, her endurance."


24 February 2012

Build Peace Not Temples

I have a friend who often accuses me of drifting away in the middle of conversations, off and running to some other corner of the room by another thought, a bird call out the window, an old book in need of having its spine cracked.

Such is the way it's always been and so recently while walking around the City of David with our tour guide, the muezzins in the Silwan opened up there afternoon prayer and the sound, rolling over the ancient stones of David's city and the century old homes of the Silwan, drew me toward them.  A siren's call, pulling Odysseus into the rocks?  I think not.  Rather, the contemplation of a missed opportunity to make peace.

Earlier in the walk, as it began, our guide had apologized for the sounds of prayer and for smoke coming from a Palestinian woman's backyard fire, where she prepared a pot of okra and zucchini for lunch.  Rather than lament the *distractions* I felt our guide had a chance to celebrate Jerusalem's complex and multi-layered love affair with God and Tradition.  Alas, it wasn't to be.  One man's call is another man's finger in the eye of beholding the heavenly throne.  And this troubling conflict is layered, yet again, with the sediment of dissension.

Earlier in the week, as we had walked around the Old City, we came upon several groups of Jewish schoolchildren in the Jewish Quarter, where they had gathered for a celebration to mark the receipt of Bibles from the teachers.  It was a coming-of-age moment in the pedagogy that we celebrate ourselves with our students at the synagogue in Brooklyn.  The conveyance of the Book to a younger generation is the fiber of our continuity musculature.  We need it in order to stand up straight.  Without this animating narrative, its ancient language, and the land in which it came to be--however we understand its words and meanings--there is little that binds us save the attenuating strands of a fading DNA.

The Book itself has a set text; its meanings remain fluid, depending upon whose hands the Book comes to rest.  Walking through the Jewish Quarter with the young children near our group, we took turns at various sites, we listening to our guide and they and their parents listening to theirs.  A mosaic of interpretations befitting an ancient, walled city.  Complex in its orientation.

When we came upon the Golden Menorah that stood for many years in the Cardo, away from the Western Wall Plaza, but now was perched in imposing, symbolic aspiration, directly across from the Golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, narratives not only differed but radically departed one from the other.

The school teacher drew himself close to the Menorah and spoke about the 1st Temple, the 2nd Temple and the 3rd Temple, creating an impassioned portrait of the will of God, bringing back to Jerusalem an ancient mode of worship that will include animal sacrifice to the Temple Mount.  What will happen to the al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock were questions not asked.  The children were drawn into the labyrinthian journey of a dream.

The intent of the Menorah's placement was made clear, not only by the teacher but by the plaque which adorns it.
"Showboat is coming," I said under my breath, drifting off in the presentation, as is my want.

Last week the Israeli police arrested a band of thugs from the Temple Mount Faithful, Jews who work to bring about the Age of the Messiah and the Third Temple.  Varieties of these guys have been arrested for various schemes to blow up the Muslim sites on the Temple Mount and on various occasions throughout the year, they will stage protests in the Old City for their right to ascend the Mount.  They know, full-well, that their presence will provoke protests from Muslims who will show up en masse to counter-protest.  Rocks and tear gas canisters will be thrown; arrests will be made.  Chaos will ensue.  Skeptics of religion and its dangerously insidious narratives of conquering one or another in the name of God, Jesus and Allah will roll their eyes.  The hard work of tolerant and tolerating believers like ourselves will be set back in time.  Everyone will re-group.  The day will dawn again.

The Jerusalem Post reported on such clashes earlier in the week and then today the Israeli police had to deal with clashes from the other side, as reported in Haaretz.   It was heartening to know that from the Israeli side, police arrested several potential Jewish provocateurs who were ready to do damage.  More such arrests ought to follow so that at all times possible, Israel can proudly live by its stated democratic promise to keep worship sites free of conflict.

Further, moderate believers need to be strengthened in their resolve that a holy city loved by billions of all faiths has more to teach us about what we share in our faith than to blood ourselves over and over again with the obscurantist, messianic delusions of those who ignore history's great folly:  those who kill in the name of God never win.

The great victory will come, to paraphrase Amichai in "Tourists," when the Jewish guide pauses his narrative about ancient Jewish stones to appreciate the call to heaven from his Muslim neighbor, in his quaint and crowded community across the valley.  

May it not be the Third Temple but Peace, speedily built, once and for all, in our day.

23 February 2012

שעת החסד

Eleven years ago I walked across the NYU campus to the Law School, where I had my cheek swabbed by some volunteers from the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation.  What are the chances that I'll ever be called, I asked.  And besides, if I might one day save a life, well, how could I resist this ultimate privilege?

Lo and behold.

Upon returning from Israel last week I got an urgent call.  My number was up.  And with a frighteningly inspiring efficiency, was led to fill out a form on a website, sent this morning to a donor center in Brooklyn, and donated seven vials of blood.  It might have been my eagerness to fulfill this mitzvah but the blood was literally shooting out of my vein into the vial.  I think there were bubbles.

"Breath easily, friend," noted Pearl, a radiant African American nurse.

"It's an incredible color," I said, calming.

"Nothing is more beautiful than the color of blood," she said.  Her smile was beatific.

If the blood matches, I go the next round.

Keep you posted.

In the meantime, thank God for the selfless mitzvot performed by these others, who have enabled me to climb aboard this chariot of possibility--if only for a time.

Yehuda Amichai once wrote a poem about שעת החסד, an "hour of mercy."  That's how it feels.  A fleeting moment, weighted with grace, which may never come again, to save a life.  But of course to be humbled in the reminder that every day there are thousands who seize such moments, and in so doing, redeem our world.

21 February 2012

BDS Returns to Park Slope

With coverage set to begin what will be one of Park Slope's great media sensations of the spring--the vote on a referendum to consider a boycott of Israeli products--I include here a link to today's Wall Street Journal coverage.

I am also reposting the piece I wrote about BDS this summer.

After another two weeks in Israel with members our community in early February, I remain convinced that a boycott of Israel is the wrong strategy.   Even while seeing up close some of the difficult and painful consequences of the occupation, it remains clear to me that Jewish settlements are only half the problem--Palestinian intransigence with regard to direct negotiations are the other half.

Studying the BDS movement closely, it is clear to me that the goal is not to merely "end the occupation" (a goal shared by many Israelis and American Jews) but the real goal is to end the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.  The BDS movement seeks a one-state solution, which, if demographic projections are correct, will mean the dissolution of Zionism's central goal, shared by its proponents for more than a century.  And with issues like Iran's nuclear weapons program and an increasingly unstable and unpredictable Middle East region, Israel must remain a legitimate bastion of safety for its Jewish citizens.

For those interested in learning more about this issue, please attend the Progressive Voices for Peace in the Middle East event with Michael Walzer, Brooke Goldstein, Zudhi Jasser, and Yonah Shem-Tov at Old First Church on Sunday March 4 at 2 pm.

More such public teach-ins will follow in the weeks ahead.

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.

19 February 2012


Minna, stone named for Monas; Andy, stone named for Norman; Audrey, stone named for Naomi; Rachel, stone named for Ruchel; Lois, stone named for Larry.
What's with mountains in the Berkshires where Native American maidens thrust themselves from the cliffs, crashing romantically to their deaths?

Last Passover we walked the paths at Bash Bish Falls, an uncommon momentousness of nature left to its own devices, the glorification in its own creation, only to be tarnished by man's insistence on adding loss to the accumulation of unrestrained beauty.  Bash-Bish, eponymous dame of uncommon beauty herself, was accused of adultery, tossed into a canoe, and forced to ride the waters to her early demise.

Today, we walked Monument Mountain, just down the road a piece from Bash Bish, and discovered that this phenomenal display of Earth's morphological geological uniqueness had become, by way of Native American literary metamorphosis, the funereal stone-heap for a young Indian maiden.  As depicted famously by the American Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant, this young girl lost love after being shamed for falling in love with her cousin.  She was ostracized by her tribe; and, in her grief, gave up the ghost

...when the sun grew low
And the hill shadows long, she threw herself
From the steep rock and perished. There was scooped,
Upon the mountain's southern slope, a grave;
And there they laid her, in the very garb
With which the maiden decked herself for death,
With the same withering wild flowers in her hair.
And o'er the mould that covered her, the tribe
Built up a simple monument, a cone
Of small loose stones. Thenceforward, all who passed,
Hunter, and dame, and virgin, laid a stone
In silence on the pile. It stands there yet.

There the gathered stones.  As I climbed over them, thinking back to my own hikes up the suicide paths of Masada and the glorious vistas of the Galilee and the Golan Heights, I was momentarily cognizant of the Jewish practice of leaving stones for the dead but more than that, inspired, by the outrageous gorgeousness of this rocky protuberance west of the might Hudson, lording over the gentle snaking path of the Housatonic.

The lost narratives of American Romanticism serve as a warning to the potentially dangerous waning of Jewish practices of mourning.  Many have been the times when I've stood at a graveside with Jews burying their dead.  Torn ribbon on a lapel; memorial candle and shiva boxes in the trunk of the car by the side of the road; seven days of shiva replaced by one, more a reception with platters, than a descent into the humility of loss; but always, no matter the distance from practice, the wandering and lingering by the family plots:  reciting names and stories of those past.  And leaving stones.

"We both leave stones!  We both leave stones!" I shouted to the wind as the hike came to an end.

Melville, who was soon to publish Moby Dick, met with Hawthorne on this mount.  It rained that day, according to the story, and they sought refuge in a cave, where a prodigious exchange of ideas took place.  Melville later thanked Hawthorne for the discussion, for planting "germinous seeds into my soul."

Like Jews at a grave.  Leaving rocks.  Telling stories of those past and thereby keeping them alive, with us, in the world.

16 February 2012

Israel 2012

Greg Reitman's outstanding video from our Israel Trip.  He captured it all.  ENJOY!

Israel Trip 2012 from 30 Second Life on Vimeo.

Until Next Time

on har bental.  photo by erica reitman
Our 2012 CBE Trip to Israel was excellent.  We were 22 people who represented new members and long-time members as well as people who had been disengaged from the community since their kids had grown and were able to use this trip as a time to re-connect to the community in a new way.  New friendships forged; old ones strengthened.  It was so gratifying in so many ways.  

I'd like to take a few moments to reflect a bit on why the trip worked so well, based on three basic principles.

1.  Have fun and be open to surprises.  On our first night, for instance, I took those still awake after our arrival on a walk through Neve Tzedek, beautiful and charming at night, where we serendipitously met the rabbi of the Shloush Synagogue and were treated to a phenomenal welcome from this Libyan Jew, including a detailed analysis of his Torah scrolls from Aleppo, Libya, Morocco and Jerusalem.  Gaga exercise after a day in Tel Aviv--which began with Bina, text study and a tour of poverty and refugees in South Tel Aviv to the Rabin memorial, the Tel Aviv Art Museum--was not at the top of people's list but once they did the class, they were refreshed.  Birds in the Hula Valley, Banias for archaeology, and closing the day with a trip to a chocolate factory and winery in the area after an intense security reality check on the northern border are important contrasts that give people a sense of the extremes of life.  We almost snuck in a trip to a caviar fish farm but just couldn't work out the logistics.

2.  Meet with people who live in Israel.  Try not to be a tourist all the time.  This is important when traveling with adults.  Get people off the beaten track.  Give them down-time to get out there.  Emphasize the importance of striking up conversations.  In Jerusalem we had a Shabbat afternoon meal and study session with my friend Shimon Felix, a modern Orthodox rabbi and phenomenal teacher.  In typical Shimon fashion he taught a text about Rabbi Nachman's insight that the Holy Land of Israel is just like land anywhere else--but different.  This text gives voice to those in search of epiphanies but don't find them.  And acknowledges that our time spent anywhere, especially sacred places, are made holy by the work and effort we invest, not their inherently spiritual elevation.  Later in Jerusalem we met with my friend Sadek Shuweiki, a Palestinian social worker from Abu Tor who works in the Israeli prison system. Sadek grew up in the city and knows it from another angle than what most tourists see and his perspective is essential for understanding the stunning and challenging contrasts that face contemporary Israel.  He took us to a roof-top cafe in the Christian Quarter where we had a sobering conversation about inequities in the housing, education and criminal justice system.  After spending time with both Ir Amim and in Ir David, Sadek's view bridged the gap and gave real voice to the intense presentations we got from both our tours of Arab neighborhoods, Jewish settlements, ancient history, and today's complex realities.

3.  Don't shy away from difficult conversations.  It's really important.  Being a Jew does not mean showing up in the synagogue once or twice a year.  That's self-evident.  But neither does it mean compartmentalizing one's Jewishness to the synagogue, even if you attend regularly.  Israel presents a view of Jewish identity that is all-encompassing.  Zionism was originally intended, arguably, as more than the national liberation movement of European Jewry.  In returning to Zion, the Jew could be made whole again, at home in language, land and history, responsible for his own destiny.  This may sound like rhetoric but it is not.  There is, of course, the sheer joy of ordering food in Hebrew, admiring all the handsome young people, kvelling over Israeli ingenuity and singularly inspiring survivability; but there is also the matter of Jewish responsibility and morality.

How we manage our relationships with Arab Israelis; how we manage our relationships with Palestinians who seek a state and independent destiny of their own; how we manage Jewish security concerns in the most humane way possible; how the state navigates its own internal questions of religion and identity in a parliamentary democracy where a religious minority can dominate in areas of spirituality.  These are not easy black and white conversations.  Rather, they're complicated, multi-faceted, emotional, and sometimes difficult.  It's so important to model to our communities that come to visit that to be a Jew is to live with complexity, with paradox, with ambiguity.

You can't plan a trip as if it's the only chance you have to show people Israel.  Rather, you have to plan a trip in order to plant seeds for another visit.  Frame questions; set the table for the next time.  And don't be afraid to provoke.  Among its many achievements, Zionism is about reminding people that Jews have personalities.  Opinions.  Passions for pursuing their own truths.  More than 600,000 Israelites received Torah at Sinai, the Sages teach.  Try parsing that lesson.  These ten days from one set of perspectives; the next ten days from another.  That kind of thing.

Two final notes:  Four people left the tour and we almost lost a fifth.  Two left to tend to an infirm parent back in the States; two more left when one of them broke her ankle in an accident.  Another dislocated her shoulder in a fall.  Gevalt!  But everyone's resilience, care and love were evident.  We wish everyone a full and speedy recovery!

And our tour company, Israel Experts, was excellent.  Our guide was wonderful, the logistical support from the company was second to none, and they really helped put together a unique and eye-opening experience for our community, never batting an eye (at least to me) at my whacky ideas.  Thanks so much to Ros, Karen, Joyce, Ruby and especially our guide, Ran Tzabar, for an amazing and unforgettable ten days.

Until next time.

15 February 2012

Here and There

The new trail that runs along the old Jerusalem rail line is a great place to run.  My morning workouts went from the Mount Zion Hotel where we were staying, down the hill past Cinemateque, up toward Jaffa Gate, around the corner and down the hill to Damascus Gate, then back toward the tracks, through Baka and into Talpiot, ending back on Emek Refaim at Aroma.  That was more or less my run this past summer as well and it so it shall be in July upcoming.  During our four days in Jerusalem, I saw two members of our shul trip logging their miles as well along the same trail.  Just like in the park here in Brooklyn.

Today, as rain fell upon my head, making my way through Prospect Park after an all-night flight from Tel Aviv, I thought of Exile.  The Jewish community has recently taken up a new buzz-word, "Peoplehood," which, I gather, is an attempt at landing upon some of talking about how Jews define themselves when they don't exclusively define themselves in religious terms.  Like, "We're a People:  with language, land, history, calendar, customs AND faith."

I wonder if there'll ever be Commission on Exile.  I doubt it.  But someone might look into it.

Exile means loving the ground beneath my feet, the verdant soil, the bare trees, the anticipation of the work ahead when I re-engage with the synagogue on Thursday--but feeling an inexplicable sense of loss, a lack of wholeness because the intensity of the questions of Jewishness has been turned down a notch, living here.  What did Einstein say?  "One can be internationally minded without renouncing interest in one's tribal comrades."

That's certainly true.  And to me represents a kind of exilic statement.  It recognizes a here and there.  Which is not to say that Exile isn't felt when I'm there, in Jerusalem.  A bit of a stranger here; a bit of a stranger there.  But there, the Jewishness at a more existentially intense level.

Still, in New York, at all times of year, we see Israelis in love with their national sport, shopping.  And why not?  The heaviness that can hang over life there, its tense, high-wire act.  But beneath the surface is another kind of exile--the pressure to leave that I heard alot about on this trip.  The fear of a war with Iran hangs over many heads and there is a kind of unspoken market for passports to other countries.  There's the brain drain to other academies of higher learning.  And there is an overall sense of exhaustion from decades of unresolved conflict with Israel's neighbors.  Both Palestinians and Israelis feel rather despairing of prospects for peace; each seem to have dug in for the long haul, ceding the ground to extremists on both sides.  And then there is terrifying instability of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria with its daily massacres, and Iran threatening nuclear mayhem while stirring the pot in New Delhi, Bangkok, and Georgia.  They hate us when we're here; they hate us when we're there.

Where's Exile?

What else did Einstein say?  "Perhaps it is thanks to it [anti-Semitism] that we have been able to preserve our race...Let us leave the goj his anti-Semitism and preserve for ourselves the love for our kind."

Precisely why bold leadership is needed:  to accept, like Einstein, that the hate will always exist.  So let's get on with the other project--that of living and loving.

Preparing to leave Jerusalem last night, despite my skepticism in the agency of such things, I left a note in the Western Wall for mom's health, for a friend's brother, and I promised Jerusalem I'd be back.

I don't know if it was an act of faith or if it's just what our people do.

Here and There.

14 February 2012

Arguing Over Stones

with ir amim in gilo, over-looking bethlehem
 A day of contrasts.

The morning we spent with a guide from Ir Amim, a civil rights organization that is devoted to monitoring and litigating housing & construction issues in East Jerusalem.  We were blasted, right out of the gate, with an impassioned and energetic presentation of specific places--Gilo, Har Gilo, Bethlehem, Rachel's Tomb and Har Homa--painting a picture of an unofficial Jerusalem urban planning design that is meant to prevent any future Palestinian capital or meaningful Palestinian presence in East Jerusalem.  Some in our group were enthralled with the cascade of facts--Har Homa and the snaking concrete barriers around Rachel's Tomb were the two starkest examples--and others were nonplussed, seeing it all in the broader context of what Israel needs to do to ensure its rightful sovereignty over Jerusalem.  There was something bizarre and other-worldly, a security dystopia, in seeing a holy site surrounded by concrete walls in every direction.  It screamed in metaphoric language of the insidious, painful realities on all sides.  No one should be restricted from visiting their religious sites--Jews, Christians or Muslims--but Rachel's Tomb isn't protected as much as it's hermetically sealed behind a universe of concrete that in walling out Palestinian homes, also walls in itself.  A disturbing and troubling site.

To my mind, the most compelling aspects of the tour, besides the guide's impassioned plea for awareness, for an eyes-wide-open approach to the facts on the ground in the conflict, was when we stood on a ridge overlooking the whole city and could see clearly the physical difference between East and West Jerusalem.  Clearly, a century of conflict has only reinforced the black and white; and the continued lack of a coherent urban plan for the whole city means that the disparities in services and the application of the law will remain a deep, unhealed wound.

Neighborhoods of East Jerusalem hung PLO and Hamas flags; Arafat's image continues to adorn doorways; suicide bombers, long dead, remain valorized, their faces postered on light poles along the tattered roadways.  In one area we were supposed to visit, a demonstration had broken out over a house demolition; another had arisen near a parking lot where we'd be later in the day, at the City of David, a fascinating, important, but nevertheless controversial dig of 1st and 2nd Temple ruins--controversial because the City of David is also the Palestinian village of Silwan.

News had not yet reached us about the terrorist attacks against Israelis in New Delhi and Georgia, a frightening and troubling development in the Iran-Hezbollah-Israel conflict.  But as we heard over and over again from speakers regardless of their political leanings, Israel is, without a doubt, living in an often precarious situation with its neighbors.  And the Iran nuclear issue is the subtext for so much these days.  Among the many dangers--outright war with chemical and nuclear weapons--is the tragedy that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be sublimated to these greater global considerations.  That's not good for anybody.

And then to the City of David.  Archaeologically of great significance with sites from the 1st and 2nd Temple period, an historical reality that is denied by the Palestinian narrative that understands ancient Jewish connections to the land as colonial fantasy.   Beyond the need and the right to embrace, affirm and understand history, there is the purely practical matter that the data at the site is fascinating and exhilarating. 
from a 2nd temple mikvah, over-looking Silwan
And yet:  always an agenda.  The dig at the City of David is funded by El Ad, an organization that is doing phenomenally interesting historical work while also settling Jews in predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, claiming the Jewish right to do so, and opposing an similar move into West Jerusalem for Palestinians who may have fled or been evacuated in the War of Independence in 1948.  The clearly unequal application of power permeates the site.  Litigation and demonstrations are ongoing--with Ir Amim often opposing El Ad in its effort, which provided an enjoyable subtext to both morning tours--the Ir Amim guy taking shots at the El Ad guy; and the El Ad guy returning serve.  It's too bad we didn't make them sit together and debate. 

There's been ample coverage of the politicization of this project and yesterday was no exception with protests at the site. 

As much as I was thrilled I have to say that what troubled me about the experience was that our guide, who was excellent, twice apologized to the group for the Palestinian incursions into our tour.  And what were those incursions?  First, a Palestinian family beneath site was burning sticks beneath a pot boiling their lunch of okra and zucchini in the backyard.  He apologized for the smoke.  Second, when the mosques called forth their afternoon prayers and the guide needed to raise his voice, he again apologized for the "noise." Each instance brough to mind the great line from Amichai's poem, Tourists:  "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.'"

Toward the end of the tour, we walked through a water tunnel that was part of a greater sistern from King Herod's time, walking under the Silwan and City of David, under the southern wall of the Old City, at came out just beneath Robinson's Arch.  I had seen that stairway, warning me not to pass, for years; and here I was, coming up the stairs.  It was a damn big thrill. 

But it was colored by the message.  Valorizing Herod the Great, a blood-thirsty maniacal leader--were not those workers who built the Temple slaves afterall; how many did he kill, including members of his own family, to achieve and maintain power--always sours these visits for me.  Our guide ended with a beautiful sermon about Jewish unity but it was a vision of unity that pointed toward a Third Temple, rebuilt today by Jewish hands, a delusion of nationalism more than a dream.

History and ideology are simply too intertwined in this worthy archaeological project and what a shame it is.  I hope for the day when their can be joint excavations, celebrating one another's historical finds, raising a glass together to the deepening of our mutual connections to this land.  So entrenched is this conflict for now that we're still left arguing over stones.

13 February 2012

What Will They Say?

Archaeology in its incomplete potential is often more alluring than a finished product, which can sometimes fall prey to the ideology of the site's ruling authority.  Before we came down to Jerusalem on Friday, we stopped off at Tzipori, one of the cities that gave rise to post-Temple rabbinical Judaism.  Cosmopolitan in its origins, Tzipori represents, for me, the Sages openness to the world, comfortable in their Greco-Roman cultural context and yet proudly Jewish, seemingly aware of the ways in which identity is more multiple than singular.

Contrast that with the Old City, a place I love to be and yet whenever I wind up in the Old City, something about the way the Jewish Quarter is framed leaves me feeling empty.  It's as if Judaism and Jewish culture is stagnant, envisioned only through the strangest and most conservative of forces at best while increasingly yielding to the most extreme and frankly, weird, visions of the Jewish future. 

The Temple Mount, in all its glory with the Dome of the Rock shining above, is a study in two visions for the city that not only having nothing to do with one another but in fact harbor deep aspirations for the apocalyptic elimination of one another.  The Muslim Waqf denies the ancient Jewish claim on the city, having gone so far in recent years to destroy archaeological evidence of Jewish life beneath the Temple Mount while the Temple Faithful strategically position a replica of the Menorah that stood in the Temple in ancient days right across from the entrance to the Western Wall area as if to send the signal that the End is Near and the Third Temple is on its way.  All over the Jewish Quarter one can see signs of such hopes, a quaint expression of delusional madness that is best ignored by the majority of Israelis who find the personalities inside the Old City to be hopelessly caught up in the fog and hard rain of religion.

Despite it all, we continue to have moving experiences when we approach this Wall of Jewish Prayer, a focus of Diaspora Judaism's exilic hopes for return.  Cynicism yields to humble experience when some touch the wall that prior generations could only hope to conjure in their minds; and thus serving as a kind of emissary for lost generations is an experience that rightly keeps things in perspective.

We had approached the Jewish Quarter yesterday after spending an hour atop Mount Zion, watching Christian pilgrims experience the joy of seeing the room where Jesus had his last supper; bemused as Jews prayed beside the supposed Tomb of King David (in fact more likely a shrine to a Muslim holy man) and then later, inside the Christian Quarter, where fevered pilgrims prostrated themselves in all manner of positions, touching and kissing marble and rock where Jesus may have once suffered and died. 

Extraordinary, isn't it? 

Everyone is kissing stones.  And in their mind's eye, they see their Beloved God.

Faith, it appears, is in the eye of the beholder.

After a day in the Old City we went to Hebrew Union College where we learned about the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, a worthy organization advocating for equal religious rights for Reform and other non-Orthodox Jews in Israel.  It was a good conversation--practical--and had an appropriate focus on what is possible in a nation with no shortage of urgent demands on its population.  Perhaps the greatest impediment to the growth of a progressive Jewish spiritual life in Israel is a combination of the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox on a politicized state religion, Zionism's success in building an indigenous Hebrew culture without religion, and the trite but nevertheless accurate idiom that "the synagogue I don't attend is an Orthodox synagogue."  Since security generally trumps all, it seems that it will be several more years until the Reform movement can truly get a foothold in the spiritual imagination of more Israelis.  To date, Reform synagogues claim only 10,000 members--in a nation of 6 million Jews, it leaves tremendous room for growth.

Some of us walked into Mahane Yehuda for some grilled meat for dinner and then ambled back to the hotel under a clear sky and moonlight, through West Jerusalem enchanting neighborhoods.  In two thousand years, I suppose, it's likely some archaeologist may very well tell the stories of the streets we walked.  Past cafes, bookstores, schools, mansions, gardens, soccer fields and basketball courts--all overflowing with life.

I wonder what the archaeologists will say? 

10 February 2012

Better Idea

An early bus ride up from Tel Aviv after a morning run along the Mediterranean Sea.  Into the parking lot at Ein Shemer where high school kids learn ecological principles, co-existence, and dream of powering the world with energy extracted from algae.  You got a better idea? Lunch in the kibbutz cafeteria with students, locals, and elderly kibbutz members who have seem their world turned upside down for the past century.  An indomitable spirit resides in those individuals who built a nation and now, in the proverbial twilight of their lives, are seen, heard, respected, and loved in their very community they created.  Their vision of a socialist utopia may not have become what they thought it would; still, the caring remains.  You got a better idea? Um al Fakhm.  Its religious Muslim leaders have given virulently anti-Israel sermons, a large segment of the population sees itself as allied with the Palestinian struggle for independence, with occasionally violent demonstrations against the state, and yet, an artist with a vision of dealing with conflict and identity and national legitimization through Art soldiers on.  He runs a gallery of local art there; he preserves a narrative; he seeks to build a museum (designed by Israeli Jewish architects)and believes that through Art, peace is possible.  You got a better idea? The Kinneret Cemetery.  At sundown.  It's like the dead were waiting for us to remember.  Rachel, Hess, Katznelson.  Utopian thinkers, tragic writers, builders, visionaries.  Taking leave of them felt like betraying a lover.  So what do you but bow in humility and vow to return again.  You got a better idea? Kibbutz breakfast at Gonen.  A peacock banging against the wall of my cottage at sunrise and then lording over a porch down the path; labane with zatar and warm bread, arugula salad, salty olives, yogurt, granola and coffee.  Then on the bus to the Hula Nature Reserve: fish and turtles, cormorants, king fishers, terns, igrets, and loons.  Also, papyrus.  Water buffalo meandering from here to there under a mid-winter sun.  And then to the Banias, its pagan origins, a flour mill, falling water, anemones, almond trees in bloom.  You got a better idea? Mt Bental.  The proximity of war. The instability and inhumanity of the Syrian regime; the proxy status of Lebanon; the specter of Iran; and the absurd, fragile beauty of those almond trees again, with a cold wind warning of past and future sacrifices carved and layered into the volcanic sediment of these heights. A rush of chocolate, crafted "artisanally" (there's that word, as ubiquitous in my Brooklyn neighborhood as a dog on a leash) by an Argentinian Jew who sweetens in the tradition of her father and grandfather before they fled Central Europe.  Jews who take their skills with them--just in case.  You got a better idea? Wine.  Oak casks, blah, blah.  Tithing and waiting for the fourth year to harvest the vines and keeping Shabbat to earn kosher status, reasonable; forbidding Gentiles from serving it, not reasonable.  Costanza moment:  "We're living in a society!" Leaving the North in the morning.  Closing out the trip in Jerusalem for Shabbat and then plowing into archaeology, history, identity, the perils of unrestrained nationalism, the dangers and blessings of lost memory, faith, faithlessness, politics, art, religion, roofs, walls, windows, rain, coffee, wine, bread, and trees.  Almond trees. You got a better idea?

07 February 2012


The first thing one notices immediately upon turning into South Tel Aviv near the Central Bus Station are the exceptionally high number of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, lined up on corners for day work, sitting in the faded grass biding their time, set among makeshift tents with African television and hookahs, or wondering about looking for something lost.  South Tel Aviv has always been the poorest section of the city, overcome with economic displacement, a hideous monstrosity (the "White Elephant" of a bus station, dropped, Robert Moses-like, in the heart of a humble urban street plan reminiscent of the menorah) but today it is like a mirage of refugees seeking asylum from oppression in Darfur, Eritrea or Ethiopia and posing a series of great challenges and dilemmas for Israel.

A nation built on the idea of making a safe haven for Jewish refugees surely knows the pain and suffering of homelessness, the instability of uprootedness.  It calls the question on certain manifestations of Zionism--are the Jewish people, as a light unto the nations, meant to make room for other refugees seeking asylum inside their borders?  Is there a potential hypocrisy in caring for African refugees while the matter of peace with Palestinians and dealing with their claims of refugee status remain unresolved?  What about the refugees in general as a mean source of labor in an economy where most Jews no longer do the most menial of work?  Are they merely here to be temporarily engaged and then, when possible, returned to their own homeland?  Does Israel have the resources to support the social, educational, health and vocational infrastructure that would be required to integrate these refugees into mainstream Israeli society?  Is it even possible?

These are among the many difficult and as of yet unresolved questions that arose during our time at BINA and our walk around the neighborhood Tuesday morning.  As a cold rain threatened from above, we began studying the famous text about the sage Hillel who one day is shut out of the house of study, goes to the roof to hear his masters teach, falls asleep and is covered in snow.  His body blocks out the light from the study hall and when his masters notice the darkened room, look up above to notice that their neglected student--unconscious--calls for assistance.  Their lesson ceases and they take up the matter of healing him--bringing him indoors and warming him by the fire.

A powerful metaphor for BINA's work--to engage young people with learning while also engaging the surrounding neighborhood in classic community organizing techniques of working with at-risk youth, the elderly, and the refugees--all greatly underserved in any society and certainly in Israel as well.  Noga Brenner Samia did a great job showing us around the neighborhood, laying out the dilemmas and challenges of the work, and inviting us to return, to send our students, and to take responsibility for some very important work in contemporary Israel.
After an early afternoon walk about the center of town and a break for lunch, we shifted gears and headed to the Tel Aviv Art Museum and a tour of the new wing, designed by Harvard architect Preston Scott Cohen.  The building is spectacular and in its center, emanating from a design like the keel of a ship, is what the architect called a "light-fall," which is as disorienting as it is calming--drawing one in as one is drawn into the power of a great water-fall.  An homage to the Guggenheim, I suppose; but I was struck by the sanded concrete ship's bow exterior and felt that art, like life here, was beckoning the epic journey.  Why settle for anything less?
What's a day in Tel Aviv without Gaga?  Yossi Naharin warmly brought us through an introduction to this unique exercise form that after three days and a deep immersion in some hard questions, was a welcome respite from words and a chance to let the body, movement and intuition take over.  Gaga was developed by Yossi's brother, the Batsheva dance director Ohad Naharin, as "movement language" and during this guided meditation, our voices were quieted by the expansions of our "interior" minds to an exterior language of motion.  There was something about this embrace of the ethereal, the reaching up, the turning inside-out, that had me thinking back to the rain that threatened to fall all day, the wind that blew with great strength the palm and ficus and sycamore trees every which way.

We prepare to leave Tel Aviv this morning, to head to the North of the country, humbled by the city's uncommon beauty, exuberant youth and vitality, and insanely challenging dilemmas--both common to any large urban reality yet singularly unique to Israel.

Last night at dinner, someone said, "Can't we just stay in Tel Aviv for a month?" No erstwhile comment--but an expression of the complexities of this place, its alluring narrative of a new Jewish culture in an ancient language, and an irreducible certainty that as Herzl himself imagined in his novel "Altneuland," this place is both old and new.  "Can't we stay?" An admission of being drawn in to the story, of not wanting to leave, of admitting that it's taken hold.  Incredible to think that the state was built by us for our own safe haven and that now others seek it as well.  The dimensions of this reality will challenge Israelis for many more years to come.

We were once slaves in Egypt and when we were freed we danced on the shores of the sea.  Without question, however, is that one can't dance forever.  The world, and its inhabitants, call out for us to bring goodness and justice to them as well.  A message that is both old and new.

06 February 2012


We spent the morning at Trumpeldor Cemetery, a favorite among Tel Aviv locals (especially the night-time tours with music and poetry), visiting the graves of Bialik, Nordau, Ahad Ha'am, Tschernikovsky, Dizengoff, Brenner, Sharret, Gutman, Rubin, Damari and many more.  Truly one of the most beautiful spots in the whole country, now set inside a bank of apartments in the center of town but a reminder of what was once the sand-duned outskirts of Old Jaffa where that ancient city's Jews came to bury their dead in the early 20th century, a decade before Tel Aviv was founded.
Without a doubt, the dead founders, thinkers, poets and artists of this remarkably complicated and beautiful city continue to debate the debates underground that they had aboveground and are, as well, the inherited conflicting narrative about motivations, dilemmas and ways forward for those attempting to guide the state's destiny in the present time.  From Ahad Ha'am's vision for a renascence of Hebrew culture to drive the re-birth of the Jewish people to Max Nordau's scathing critique of Jewish corporeal weakness; from Brenner's impassioned writing and tragic death to Arlozoroff's controversial attempts to save Jews' lives and his being the victim of Israel's first political murder (still unsolved); Bialik's "City of Slaughter" alongside Rubin and Gutman's romantic Mediterranean visions--you'd never know the people buried here are dead.

We made our way over to Jaffa, first for an overview of the city in the last 3500 years of history, then lunch, and then a tour from two young activists--one Israeli native of Jaffa and one Palestinian--whose walking tour was designed to highlight some of the complex socio-economic realities that drive the current wave of Jaffa's gentrification, an issue that a number of people pointed out is as relevant in Brooklyn as it is in Jaffa.  "Basically, it stinks to be poor," said one member of our group.

But additionally, we waded into the conflicting narratives of Jewish and Palestinian homeland, throwing around statistics of when Jews were a minority in Jaffa and when they became a majority; the struggle for power amidst riots and pogroms at the beginning of the twentieth century (Brenner and 46 others killed in anti-Jewish riots in 1921) and the onset of modern Zionism as well as attempting to determine what exactly happened between the U.N. Partition Plan of November 1947 and the Declaration of Israeli Independence of May 15, 1948:  amidst strollers pushed by Jaffa Palestinians and Jews--both secular and religious--as school let out, the health clinic hummed with activity, new cafes and old Bulgarian restaurants filled with customers--we stood underneath knotted ficus trees trying to understand.

Our speakers disagreed with civility and respect about certain narratives related to 1948 and it seemed to me that burning just beneath the surface is the haunting reality that we are seeing an increasing articulation of the bi-national versus the two-state solution.  The intransigence of coming to peace, compounded by the increased nationalism and religious messianism of the conflict, has turned many in the younger generation toward the utopian ideal of a "liberal democracy where everyone has equal rights."  Idealized and admirable from one perspective--and certainly understandable given a certain erosion of civil rights and a seeming endlessness to war; but for sure the ultimate demographic end of a Jewish majority.
Without a doubt we left with more questions than answers.  Our late afternoon program was with Hagai El-Ad, the Executive Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.  Since our trip is heavily loaded with lawyers, the conversation with Hagai was at a very high level of sophistication about civil rights issues facing Israelis and Palestinians today, making clear yet again that the lack of a constitution in this country continues to create great challenges for the the development of a clear civil rights mandate and structure for Israeli citizens.  This struggle is all the more admirable given the juggernaut of political opposition it has faced from several members of the current government's cabinet, who have sought to legally undermine the work of several NGOs in Israel (including the recent, widely published attacks on the New Israel Fund) who are doing civil rights work.  One member declared Hagai to be "doing God's work."  Shoring up civil rights has always been an admirable struggle.  We hope to invite El-Ad to Brooklyn soon.

After a long day, everyone broke for dinner.  I took a long walk through town, down Rothschild, the scene of this past summer's tent protests about economic and housing inequalities in the country.  The markets were closing and television news screened the latest disturbing news of what seems an impending and inevitable attack upon Iran's nuclear ambitions.  I have yet to encounter an Israeli who doesn't think this will happen.  Nevertheless, most remain obviously troubled by the specter of what may come as a result.  More than one hundred years after the founding of this city, a retaliatory strike at the heart of Tel Aviv will do far more damage than the riots of 1921 but one thing will remain consistent:  that the will for survival transcends the specific dimensions of this particular time, calling to mind a greater trope of Jewish history that remains indescribably triumphant despite others' errant visions of our eradication.

As I walked down Rothschild, bikers whizzed past on paths that were laid by founders who landed on shore to build a White City, a Mediterranean idyll in the revitalized language of ancient Israel.  Graffiti about an "uprising of love" spoke from walls; families shlepped kids home; dogs meandered, doing their business; kids kicked soccer balls in the public space now surrounding the newly renovated Bima theater complex; cars sped on by the darkened warning of Rabin's assassination site.

And the voices, above it all, called forth from Trumpeldor Cemetery, pointing toward the countless, though not yet certain directions this may all take.

05 February 2012

בית הכנסת שלוש

We went for a walk after dinner at the hotel (where the Ashkelon Municipality was having some kind of pre-Super Bowl Shindig) and wound our way through the streets of Neve Tzedek, taking in the uncommonly beautiful and calming sites of this old neighborhood which preceded Tel Aviv by a generation, laying the groundwork for its eventual rise to existence.  Down Shabazi, through the campus of the Dellal Center, and up toward Shloush, named for Aharon Shloush, who built a small synagogue for the Jews fleeing Jaffa in the 1880s.

A light was on in the small little shul and so we climbed the stairs, turned the corner and walked in.  There was a rabbi, alone, studying a page of Talmud, and after some brief formalities, we were treated to a remarkably warm conversation.  He himself was a refugee from Libya after the Six Day War and he told us stories about the neighborhood's founding and evolution over the years, becoming the very "in" place that it now is.

The rabbi showed us some of the original furniture from the shul--including the Elijah's Chair, traditionally used for brises and other happy, solemn events.  The rabbi mentioned that some people like to say that Meir Dizengoff's son had his bris there (even though Dizengoff's only child, a girl, died soon after she was born.)  With a sparkle in his eye rolling meaning he conveyed the deeper truth:  this chair is so old, the founding mayor of Tel Aviv stood here for celebrations.  To prove his point, he showwed us that some of the pews are from the old Eden Cinema on Lilienblum Street.

The real treat was reserved for the very end, when the rabbi opened up the Torah Ark to reveal to us the many scrolls and to describe in detail their origin.  Syrian, Libyan, Sfat, Jerusalem--the varied and beautiful scribal work from generations of those who made God's word come to life.

The rabbi gets about 20 people for minyan, mostly young soul-searchers, looking to acquire meaning beyond the ephemeral trendiness of the neighborhood.  No board; no dues; no community programming and the like--a radically different model than what we're used to in organized Jewish communities in the states.

When it was time to go, the rabbi began putting the Torahs away; we left some contributions in the tzedakah boxes on the table, and were on our way.

As we returned to the street, a small plastic bag filled with shoes and clothing for children had been left on the steps of the synagogue.  I imagine that besides studying, sharing stories with soul-searchers, and giving good tours, the rabbi does a turn at helping the poor as well.

*(photos courtesy of Janice Cimberg's iPad)

Just Arrived: Tel Aviv Day One

A safe arrival after an uneventful flight.  Awakened several times during the night by an impassioned Lubavitcher lad who insisted on my putting on his tefilin.  Even the blue El Al blanket over my head didn't send the right message.  Ah, well.

Just in Tel Aviv, getting ourselves situated, short dinner, brief orientation, and then a night out.  I plan on showing the group Neve Tzedek at night, a taste of which was covered by the Times this weekend.

More later.

03 February 2012


I refuse to say good-bye to those who are gone forever, which as a Jew, I think is a pretty sound policy. "The past is a fuel that keeps burning," a wise young person said to me once and I think that's true.

The picture you see above is the remnant of a Torah scroll from a German synagogue that had been destroyed during the Holocaust.  It was recovered by the colleague of a late and beloved teacher of mine, Rabbi A. Stanley Dreyfus, who kept it above his study here in Brooklyn for the past thirty years, after bringing it home from Berlin some time ago.

This week, while visiting his widow, my dear friend Marianne Dreyfus, whose grandfather Dr. Leo Baeck was Germany's leading Liberal rabbi before the war, this sacred fragment was handed to me.  Marianne is moving soon and is therefore making sure that many of Stanley's cherished tools for the conveyance God's word, Torah wisdom and the triumphant survival of our people after the cataclysm of the Shoah will long live.

The section of Torah that is framed above is in fact from this week's Torah portion, בשלח, a serendipitous moment of bone-chilling realization that, as is often the case with this Pillar of Fire that has accompanied our nation on all its journeys, never ceases to amaze me.  You should join me in that awe.

The right hand side of the framed scroll above begins:
"And the people grumbled against Moses and said, 'Why did you bring us up from Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?' Moses cried out to the Eternal, saying, 'What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!' Then the Eternal said to Moses, 'Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out.  I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.'  And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.  The place was named Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites tried the Eternal, saying, 'Is the Eternal present among us or not?' "
Leaving aside the minor miracle that when the architects of our synagogue's Temple Lobby created their design scheme, they graphically depicted several Biblical passages and the one quoted above--the Israelites complaining to Moses soon after experiencing the miracle of the parted waters of the Red Sea (which is placed above the door to the Rabbi's Study!), you have here the scribal depiction of a classic Jewish theological knot:  when times are tough, is God present among us or not?

Rabbi Dreyfus once told his students the story, which he heard from Rabbi Baeck, about why after the war and after his internment at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, Baeck continued to return to Germany to teach.  "I never forget the German woman who risked her life by giving me bread, in front of the eyes of the Nazis, as I was being led to the trains."

Each of us, at one time or another, have put God on trial; and each of us, at one time or another, have had the opportunity, regardless of where and when we were born, to bear witness to a Presence beyond ourselves--fate, physics or faith--that provided water to sustain our thirst in the dry, withering heat of, if not evil, the absence of good.

"Strike the rock and water will issue from it."  No passive plea, that.  Rather, a call to action.  Sometimes absence is keenly felt, and the accompanying darkness can bring on despair.  But we never lose hope.  We never say "good-bye."  We remember, we teach in others' names, we light candles and tell stories, we let in the light.

Look back at the picture of the Torah scroll above.  On the left is the day, shining through the window in my study, a portal to the present on an ancient story that is ours to tell to future generations.

"The past is a fuel that keeps burning."

02 February 2012

Even Higher

When I was  in fifth grade, and stupid, I went down to the train tracks with a couple of friends and threw rocks at the window of a caboose.  The window broke (that being the goal) and triumphantly I returned home with the friends.  We may have shot hoops, eaten some food, and watched tv.  I'm pretty sure that was the plan.

The next day I was called out of class and into the principal's office at school where the police were waiting to ask some questions, like, "Why did you throw rocks at a train, young man?  Are you aware that vandalism is illegal?"  It was enough to scare the hell out of me.  And with the exception of a brief altercation during college with a bike cop in Madison who attempted to arrest me for not stopping fully at a stop sign, threatening incarceration if I didn't stop lecturing him and hand over my driver's license (I'm fairly certainly I quoted Thoreau at one point) it's the closest I ever came to being jailed.

Until today: when I visited Bedford Hills Correctional Facility with a couple members of our community and representatives of the Osborne Association, in order to learn about the incredibly awe-inspiring work being done to rehabilitate incarcerated women and their families.  I met people today who had clearly done the worst things they had ever done in their lives, were jailed for it from anywhere from 8 years to life, and are currently leading some of the most thoughtfully profound and redemptive lives of any people I've met in my life.

Living, breathing, struggling examples of what it means to face the worst in yourself and, despite its painfully acute awareness, decide to transcend it and commit to overcoming it, habituating oneself to a new life, and making a fully cognizant but nevertheless clean break from the past.

To go from the nightmare of poverty, drug abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, street crime; and, in the midst of one of those many-runged dimensions of hell to the further darkness of incarceration, is nothing if not totally and existentially life-threatening.  That's axiomatic.

But the stories of triumph I heard; the heroic demonstrations of transcendence; the tear drenching inspirations of the raw, skin-scraping insistences of facing one's worst demons and taking responsibility for oneself as a person, a parent, a child, a friend of another; had the cumulative effect of creating what the tradition sees as the highest levels of spiritual service:  awe and humility.

I was awed by these imprisoned women's steely resolve; by their ability to smile through their own lives' borders of the antiseptic, unfeeling, encroaching hives of razor-wire; and humbled by their need to find the sacred in the mundane, the light in the darkness, hope in the face of despair.  Situations for which such seemingly simplistic cliches were made.

For more than a year, our community has escorted children to visit parents at Albion, at Bedford Hills and at Rikers Island.  We've led book drives for family rooms in NY State prisons and we've painted those rooms as well.  Today I learned that NY State budget cuts have eliminated a transportation program that helps deliver kids to and from family visits--an essential and humane torch of hope in the night of jail's darkness.

I met women today who will never leave prison; women who hope to one day leave; and women whose release is imminent.  Each were bound to one another by hope:  that no matter where they sat they could stand; no matter how dark it was, they could make light; that no matter how constricting the oppression of imprisonment, there could be seas that would part, offering that promise, that hope of redemption.

How I shivered in fear that day in the principal's office in 1974.  How terror struck me for the imagined consequences of throwing a rock through the window of an empty train's caboose.  But the force of that cowering amounts to nothing compared to the awe and humility of these inspired lives I met today.

Bless these women and the earth-moving resilience of their hopes and dreams for redemption.  Rarely do we start out in life fully imagining the consequences of our actions; but rewards endure for those willing to set aside the rocks and to lift one's aim, one's heart, even higher.