27 March 2013

'Interpret Me!'

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Joshua and from Joshua it went to the Elders and from the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets passed it on to the Men of the Great Assembly.  They said three things:  Be deliberate in judgement; raise many disciples; and build a fence around the Torah. (Pirke Avot 1:1)

Who has never held the Torah close and heard the voice of past generations?  Felt the worn parchment beneath ones hands of those long gone who embraced its words?   Sensed the pulse of times other than one's own?

The Torah does none other than call out and say, 'Interpret me!' said the Sages.  While protecting me with the fence of embracing arms, practiced customs and rituals, family stories of challenge and triumph and love.

More than a thousand years ago the rabbinical tradition knew that the world was not created in seven days.  While protecting the story in Genesis, Rabbi Isaac--as recounted by the medieval interpreter Rashi--famously said, "The Torah doesn't really begin at Genesis but rather at the first instance of God commanding the Jewish people to observe the first Passover.  The science is faulty here in Genesis, Rabbi Isaac was saying, but the intent of the Creation is there, in Exodus:  as a nation we are obligated to serve.

Later in the Torah, handed down to us by the generations recounted above, we read that it's forbidden for a man to lie with another man as one lies with a woman.  We are told that to do so is an abomination.

While this text is seemingly unambiguous, one has three choices here.

1.  A man can lie with another man as a man.  Just not as a woman.  So, you know, be gay.  Embrace who you are.

2.  Being homosexual is a sin.  Don't do it.

3.  Ignore it altogether because the Bible is a bunch of superstitious nonsense and there is no such God anyway so what's the point.

The first allows for interpretation.  The second leaves no room for debate.  And the third simply breaks the chain.

For as long as I've read Torah, I've been in the first category.  Mostly driven by my generational bias and the contours of my own life, I refuse to break the chain of history and identity by throwing away the text merely because I vehemently disagree and even viscerally reject some of it.  Like a long-gone relative whose ideas around a Seder table I may have found ridiculous and wrong, he was a part of my family whose voice, thank God, no longer dominates the conversation.  But he's not written out of history.  Just contextualized.  In other words, with regards to Torah, I'd rather keep it and re-interpret it.  Observing much of it, setting aside what I don't regard as true, and relishing texture of this reality.

Of course, even my embrace of principle one--"embrace who you are"--extends to guys who feel like dressing up as women or women who feel like dressing up as men.  What do I care?  Wherein the what-do-I-care-ness derives from three places:  One, a general openness to life that I received from the Torah of my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, a characterological trait that I have passed down to my children:  Don't be judgmental.  Two, an imperfect but nevertheless generally well intended American Constitutional tradition that steadily keeps religion and state separate.  And three, a Torah tradition that calls out, 'Interpret me.'

And so it goes.

On any given Saturday in my synagogue, I look out at gay and lesbian parents raising their children to read prayers said by generations of their ancestors, observe Jewish practices, feed the hungry, house the homeless, support Israel, and learn, step-by-step, to grab hold of the Torah in their own way--while taking with them the words inherited from those who came before.

Their arms, like a fence around the Torah.

Today I am heading to Washington with my oldest child.  We'll take a train from Baltimore to DC, walk over to the Supreme Court steps, and watch the democratic drama surrounding the gay marriage debate.

We'll go as a Jewish family which both loves Torah and the progression of history--where our most Sacred Book teaches that we are all made in the Divine image and where our Constitution guarantees equal rights for all citizens of this great nation.

Hopefully a majority of the Supreme Court will decide in favor of gay marriage.  All it needs is a 5-4 vote, you know.  A rule that originates in Exodus 23:2--"after the majority one must incline."

The messy imperfections of God's word in man's hands.


25 March 2013

Passover Message

A Passover Message from Rabbi Andy Bachman

As we gather around the Passover Seder table tonight, telling stories old and new, grabbing hold of the matzah--the bread of affliction--recounting plagues, lifting our cups in triumph, our voices sing out in celebration and gratitude for life and freedom as well as the privilege and responsibility in recognizing that hunger and slavery continue to persist in our world.  

This year Congregation Beth Elohim celebrates its 150th Anniversary--a monumental feat for our sacred community here in Brooklyn.  The challenges from a century and a half ago are different from today but no less urgent.  In 1862, African Americans were slaves and women were not granted the right to vote, Israel did not exist and the First Zionist Congress would not yet meet for another thirty years.  But bondages were broken and history was made, by the inspiring work of men and women who insisted that in every generation we are all obligated to break the chains of oppression 

What challenges plague us today?  Hunger.  Homelessness.  Guns.  Homophobia.  War.   Addiction.  Many are the Pharaohs of our age.  

This remarkable and eternally inspiring story that we tell, that "in every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as leaving Egypt," continues to animate our existence.  For more than three thousand years, the Jewish People have shared with the world our story of overcoming oppression, of conquering despair, and of meriting the joy to sing aloud, "Next year in Jerusalem."  Through song, story, faith and food, our Hagadah offers a timeless tale of triumph each year, reinforced each week at Shabbat services where we lift up our voices in celebration of that first Exodus:  "Who is like You, God, doing wonders?"

Passover teaches us many things; perhaps most important is that Judaism calls upon us--through Torah, Prayer and Deeds of Lovingkindness--that we are God's partner in bringing about a more just and peaceful world.

After an historic visit to Israel by President Obama, the hope for peace is rekindled.  Congress is debating laws concerning guns and immigration and economic justice.  Closer to home, Congregation Beth Elohim, its tireless staff, its intrepid membership and volunteers from across the city, continue to daily feed hundreds of our neighbors still suffering under the deprivations of Hurricane Sandy.  In May and June we will serve as a respite shelter for a dozen homeless men.  We continue to tutor students at John Jay High School.  And throughout the spring, we will continue to build homes in Brooklyn in partnership with Habitat NYC.  

For every plague we recall in the Hagadah, there is an answer, a small redemption, that we can bring about in our world with the work of our hands and the message of hope beating strong in our hearts. 

May this Passover season of renewal bring you and your families a year of good health, good learning, and a greater measure of peace in our time.

!חג שמח/Hag Sameach!

22 March 2013

What Happens Next

March 22 thirty years ago was a cold day.  Madison's blustery winds forced one to steel oneself against its insistent, beating heart: an extension of winter that, despite the bright sun that day, was typical.

I lost my thoughts in the middle of a favorite lecture; my right hand, ordinarily perched at attention with pen in place, drifted to the margins of my notebook.  In an instant I knew that change had occurred.  Someone had moved on.

After class I walked quickly home.  I picked up a carton of milk at a local grocery.  When I got to the door of my apartment, my roommates distraught eyes said it all.  My uncle stood next to him, out of place by 70 miles or so.

"So Dad is gone," I concluded.  And then I went to pack my bag.  Like I was ready.  I knew it was coming in exactly the way a fateful, pseudo-noirish twenty year old kid would.  The smoking; the lack of exercise; the depression; the high blood pressure.  His heart was a balloon waiting to burst.  On March 22, 1983, it did.

Down the road to the southeast during that late morning hour when my mind left the classroom, my sister and her husband were trying to resuscitate Dad on the floor of his apartment.  While my car moved down the highway home to mother, sisters and brother, word began to spread, seeping as it does like black ink on weedy shoreline rocks.

I've told this story before.  Driving along I-94 in silence, my uncle's hands on the wheel.  Me, staring out the window.  "You know your Dad worked on jeeps and tanks during the War," he said.

"I know," I answered.

"And yet he never looked under the hood of his own car," said the uncle.  Testing the statement as tall grass bent in the wind outside the passing cars, pulsed to spring by melting snow, I recalled changing the oil, the plugs, a fan belt, and draining the radiator with Dad.  But just once each time.  It's not like it was a regular thing.  I took the metaphor at its meaning.

"Yeah," I said.

And as I look back at my life, now at fifty, thirty years removed from that day, 8 months after burying my mother, I think that on a certain level I'd actually like to actually stop looking under the hood of my own car, live my life with a bit less criticality, a moderately diminished obsession with searching for truth under every rock.

Would that it were.  But it ain't gonna happen.

I was out in Milwaukee earlier this week.  For a day.  My sisters and I went to buy a gravestone for Mom, using the last bit of money left over from her modest estate.  Medicaid and a Wisconsin health care trust narrowly escaped the ideological surgical knife of Governor Scott Walker so Mom (who worked as a wage earner until last December, half-way toward her 79th year while battling cancer and making ends meet) had saved enough to buy herself some peace of mind as she drifted toward death in the last month of her life at the wonderful Jewish Home in Milwaukee, surrounded by her children.  Dad and Mom were real children of the Depression; Dad served in the Second World War and though Mom was just a kid, she too was shaped by those years, by patriotism, by the New Deal, and by the belief that if you work hard or are down on your luck, the government, as an agent of good, will support you.

My parents passed those values on to me.  Living them out in the world keeps them alive.  While moving back and forth across the skies between Queens and Lake Michigan, I facebooked and tweeted messages and called congressional offices about immigration reform and gun control.  Tuesday on the Hebrew calendar was the 8th day of Nisan, Dad's yahrzeit.  It was that day we also bought a stone for mom.  In the phone calls advocating justice and in the words carved into granite, they live.

Here's the design we selected.  It's printed on paper, sent to the carver who will chisel the message in to quarried Blue Granite from Vermont.  We will lay it down in June, the eleventh month of saying Kaddish for her.
I was sitting with a congregant earlier this week and talking about her father who died about three months ago.  We got together for coffee to see how each other's mourning was going.  "Does the pain ever go away?" she asked.  And without thinking I said, "The pain grows like a tree.  It strengthens and will eventually give you shade.  It might even bear fruit."  It felt honest.

I told her about a dream I had when I was sitting shiva.   Mom was gone less than a week.  In this dream Dad had pulled into our driveway in his red Chevy convertible.  He was there to pick up Mom for a date.  It seemed that their divorce was in the distant past.  Now both dead, they appeared ready to get on with their Forever Life, together.  Mom looked beautiful.  Dad kissed her cheek.  And they drove away.

When I woke up I knew I had another day of shiva ahead of me but I was happy that my folks had found each other again.

"My dad visits me at the Kedusha," the congregant said.  "All the angels assembled, singing God's praises; I feel my dad strongly there, and then sometimes I don't, and sometimes he just passes by."

These moments are real gifts, the best kind, the ones you don't expect.

Late yesterday afternoon I had a meeting on the Upper West Side and with a few minutes to spare I dipped into a bookstore to see if, serendipitously, there was a new book of poetry to buy.  My eyes moved across the shelves and there was a new volume of poems by Philip Levine.  On the cover, a Walker Evans photograph called, "Joe's Auto Graveyard."  Sweet Will was first published in 1985, was out of print, and was recently brought back by the angels at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City.

That year I went to Jerusalem, in search of "Father," then gone two years.  I met the poet Yehuda Amichai, first on the pages in the Steimatzky Bookstore on Jaffa Road and then later in the year at Hebrew University where I introduced myself to him at a reading.  In his 1986 book, שעת החסד/Hour of Grace, Amichai had a poem called "1924," written in dedication to himself about the year of his birth.  Thrilled to see the number on the page, since that was the year my father was born, I asked him about the significance of the title.  "Look," he said with a mild annoyance at my eager fandom, "If I'd have been born in 1933, I'd have called the poem, '1933.'

"But that's the year my mother was born!" I said, practically unhinged.

"So write your own poems," he said with a smile.

We all have to make sense of our own lives, our accumulations and our losses.

We gather like people in a bus station, Amichai wrote in the title poem of that book.  We gather and slowly move apart.  Fleeting moments to be near one another, to have the chance to build the world anew.

"But they disperse," he wrote.  "The hour of grace has passed.  It won't come again."

Cold air outside on Upper Broadway, Philip Levine's book in my hands, Walker Evans' captured headlights darkened, like shaded gravestones in a field of dry grass.

The last sequence of poems in Sweet Will is entitled "Jewish Graveyards."  A copy of Mom's stone layout is folded neatly in my backpack, beside a waxy blue etching of Dad's, made by the salesman to approximate their styles to one another.  And with this book in my hand, whose re-publication I knew nothing about, my heart thrills to the sound of the words I read aloud, with focus, savoring each shape as they pass from my mouth before this 'hour of grace' comes to an end.

"A truck gearing down to enter town,
an auto horn, perhaps the voices
of children leaving school, for it's
almost that time.  A low wind
raises the hankie I've knotted
at the corners, and with one hand
I hold it and bend to the names
and say them as slowly as I can.
Full, majestic, vanished names
that fill my mouth and go out
into the densely yellowed air
of this great valley and dissolve
as even the sea dissolves beating
on a stone shore or as love does
when the beloved turns to stone
or dust or water.  The old man
rocks and whistles by turns
into the long afternoon, and I
bow again to what I don't know."

What I don't know is what happens next.

Which may be the only opening we need for those moments of grace that, when stacked up, may even allow for the merit of hours, or days or years.

17 March 2013

Make Your Voice Heard on Gun Control: Practical Steps

These are important days for Gun Control legislation in Congress and if you want to help prevent the kinds of tragic and inexcusable massacres we have witnessed in this country, NOW is your chance to speak and be heard.

The CBE Gun Control Group has assembled some very helpful information for you to use and share.

Here it is:

1.     Start calling OUR elected officials TOMORROW.  All of our sources have indicated that CALLING is the best approach to applying pressure.  Even Schumer’s office wants to hear from us and they want to hear from us daily.  Even those elected officials that have sponsored gun control legislation need to know that their constituents still care about this.  Call during your lunch break/child’s nap/in between meetings/or even walking down the street but please call. 

NYAGV sent us this great video of a woman making a call. 

We have also created this talking point template for calls to elected officials:

As a second option, send a letter (but call too!).  Have your child color on it or include a drawing.  Send a photo. Make it noteworthy.  Here is our letter template:

2.       Start contacting your friends and family in the “Key States” TODAY
Here is a link to our working spreadsheet of key states:

And here is a link to talking points for your call or e-mail to friends, family, and local points of contact:

The states in BOLD are potential "swing" states.  Some of the elected officials in those states have expressed support for gun control legislation but they really need to know their constituents care about this issue or they may lose interest or change their mind by the time the bills are up for vote.  

Send your friends and family etc. all the template links and the video and relay our message.  

15 March 2013


I don't know why I didn't think of it earlier.

If you want to control 7th graders, read to them.  The process of pacification that commences is so definitively calming as to be nothing less than an airtight theory for the seamless execution of controlling an adolescent mind on a weekday afternoon between 4-6 pm.

Read to them.

Last week I read to them S.Y. Agnon's "The Fable of the Goat," allowing them to grapple with Diaspora ideas, Zionism, and the attenuated reality of messianic yearning.  This week it was Y.L. Peretz's two classics, "Bontsha the Silent," about a bone-crushingly frustrating Man of Great Meekness, whose humility is only an occasion to be mocked; contrasted with Peretz's stunningly elegant and inspiring "If Not Higher," the tale of a Hasidic rebbe who delivers firewood to the poor dressed as a Gentile, Russian woodchopper.

His humility, as the students quickly grasped, equally humble but without a trace of the viscerally depressing meekness and self-hatred.

And then there was the matter of their own silence--less a silence of course and more the sign of a quaint, tender, innocent and calming thought process:  the pacifying contextualization of Jewish content that made them cognizant of characters, values and the Holy Grail of the skeptical crowd, Jewish narrative.

Around the room a dozen young minds listened to a Jewish story from a Jewish writer told in a Jewish voice which prompted Jewish questions and Jewish responses.

It's beautiful, and a moment worthy of celebration, when it comes together.

Today it did.

Next week I'd like to take it to a new place, "if not higher."

13 March 2013

In Favor of Imperfect Assertions

The Diaspora is a trauma inflicted not just once but twice; and for each occasion in Jewish history, the Prophets and Sages of Jewish history understood the exile in fundamentally self-referential terms:  "We brought this expulsion upon ourselves."  When the Babylonian Empire destroyed the 1st Temple in 586 BC, the Prophets wrote, "מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו--Because of our sins we were exiled from our land," a statement of radical responsibility for national disaster.  And when the Roman Empire, in 70 AD, destroyed the Second Temple, the Sages decreed that Jerusalem fell because of שינאת חינם--unbridled hatred among Jews.

Not the greatest and mightiest of ancient empires but rather our own sense of responsibility:  We are our own undoing.

Compounding this:  the trauma and dislocation of the Crusades, the Spanish Expulsion, Pogroms, and the incomprehensibly vast destruction, the Shoah.

It's no wonder, then, I suppose, that despite the collective mass-tragedies to befall the Jewish people consistently throughout at three thousand year history, we still have among us those who take a kind of macabre and precious pleasure in questioning the very right of our own territorially actualized national collective consciousness, as in, like, "Why should Israel even exist?"

So mused Professor Joseph Levine, UMass-Amherst philosopher, in the Times this past week.  He could very well have questioned America's right to exist; or a Brit could have questioned the very Britishness of national claims to highlands, lowlands and William Shakespeare's Stratford upon Avon; or a Frenchman could have questioned the legitimacy of territorial, historical and linguistic attachment to national self-determination in the Land of the Brie; but there's nothing quite as titillating as a Jew questioning the very right of *the* Jew to national self-determination.

O' ye Stateless Wanderer!  How dare ye find your way home!

Levine's analysis hinges on his distinction between a hegemonic Jewish culture, which he sees as inherently ethnocentric and problematic and a hegemonic Israeli culture, which, while linked inextricably to historic, territorial and linguistically Jewish antecedents, are somehow more acceptable than those that call themselves primarily Jewish.    One can, Levine argues, be an Israeli Arab but not an Arab Jew or Jewish Arab--or can he?

The nuances of course are the exception that prove the rule.  With any number of caveats, Israel stands as a wildly imperfect but triumphantly fascinating testimony to the insistence on Jewish renewal and self-determination.   (I write this from a country, after all, that has yet to rectify inherently racist foundations of its Constitution, not to mention an incessantly wrong-headed read of the Second Amendment and so, as a result of said imperfections, lo, these centuries later, battles rage on.  Even a non-ethnicated people such as "Americans" struggle with defining their very essence but nevertheless continue to validate the seeking to stake a claim to an essential Americanness, rooted in the values of land, language and the history of ideas along with the events that created them.)

But no one takes seriously the idea that America shouldn't exist.  Or that France shouldn't exist.  Or best yet:  South Africa shouldn't exist, where, sure, whites can be South Africans but everyone knows what we mean when we say South Africa.

Say it ain't so, Joe.  Don't let that comfy Ivory Tower in Amherst protect you from the demands of responsibility your Sacred Tradition demands of you:  To honor the 'stranger,' for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; to do justice, to love, mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.  In your language, in your land, in the complicated mess of democracy that is the successful but imperfect assertion of the Jewish right to self-determination.


07 March 2013

Blessing and Success

Barney Ross first made a living knocking guys around a ring; then he was a hero in the Second World War fighting Nazis and fascists; and then, in the twilight of his life cut too short by pain and addiction, he died.  You might more accurately say 'extinguished,' it being a more descriptive term for the abruptness, the incompleteness, of the end of man's life.

Others go the distance, as they say, and leave behind a legacy of deeds and statements and artifacts to organize a memorial around--trails to follow, words to mull, objects imbued with the sacred to turn in your hands.

Last May I held in my grasp a book of poetry by the late Abba Kovner, hero of the Vilna Ghetto, partisan warrior, Zionist fighter, witness against genocide, pioneer, teacher, poet, man.  It was given as a gift by Kovner to the father of shul member who had died, and whose memorial I was asked to help convene to remember a father touched by history, by language, by nation and land.  The son read from the book of the father at the funeral and I sat listening in awe; and then after, like a kid at a rock show, waited to get a glimpse, to touch the book, to hold it in my hand.

A few months into mourning I found Kovner's Sloan Kettering, his collection of poems from the days he lay in treatment here in New York, facing his last battle--with cancer.  I remembered back to May, to the funeral, to his hovering presence in Brooklyn.  Not a ghost by any stretch but rather a light, a flame as present and eternal as the lamp above the Scrolls in every synagogue everywhere.

Funerals in the synagogue, with a coffin laid in close proximity to an ark containing a Torah are, for me, perfect Jewish choreography.  Like two magnetic forces attracting and repelling one another, it is sight to behold.

S.Y. Agnon wrote in the "Tale of the Scribe," "Likewise, when a man comes to the next world, and the evil angels meet him and ask, 'Who are you and where are you from?' if in his earthly life he had been an upright and blameless man, and left behind him good deeds, or sons busy with Torah and commandments, then these certainly serve as his good advocates.  But if he had none of these then he is lost.  However, when Jews come to the synagogue to pray and take a Torah scroll out of the Ark and read from it, if the scroll was written as a memorial for the ascent of this man's soul, then it is immediately known on high that he had been So-and-so, a resident of such-and-such a place, and that is his identification.  They then say to him, enter and rest in peace."

"The scroll was written."  As if something moves the hand.  Poets describe this sensation.  Scribes know.  Sometimes fighters and partisans know it, too.

Today I received a thank-you note in the mail from the son of the man who died.  In it he offered words of condolence on my mother's death, which occurred a couple short months after his own dad had died.    These many months later his words were a presence in my heart both past and immediate; time collapsed with beauty and grace.

Like a fighter, felled by a punch.

"While cleaning up my dad's apartment, I found the enclosed card from Barney Ross to my dad.  I thought you might enjoy it."

It's a Rosh Hashanah card.  It shows the Eternal Flame of a Synagogue Lamp steadily burning.  In Yiddish it is written, "A year of blessing and success."  It's signed by Barney Ross.  A champion in three weight classes; a hero at Guadalcanal; gone before he was 58.  But the flame burns.

For him.  For my friend's dad.  For my mother.  For their lives lived and written.  And for the Book, above which hangs the Flame, burning for them all.

06 March 2013

Let the Dead Rest in Silence

I don't begrudge a man a peaceful burial.  God knows.  What is more humbling than death?

But no sooner than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dies does Facebook and certain organs of the Jewish press light up with accounts of Chavez's obvious anti-Semitism.  He unquestionably spied on and intimidated the Venezuelan Jewish community to such a degree that half its population fled under his rule; his supporters graffitied Jewish buildings and harassed Jewish communal leaders; he courted Iranian President Ahmadinejad, not only a blatant hater of Jews but a man on a nuclear mission to obliterate Israel; and his followers regularly circulated the insidious pamphlet of lies known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a work of fantastical proportions claiming a world-wide Jewish conspiracy to control money and power, an early blueprint for the rise of Nazism.

The Left, which I sometimes have the misfortune of being a part of because of my belief in a more fair distribution of income, workers rights, and in the case of Israelis and Palestinians, two states for two people, has the problem of getting so bogged down in its disdain for Zionism (while remaining curiously silent in the face of, say, Syrian massacres on a daily basis) that it forgets to recognize an anti-Semite when it sees one.

It's what I diagnose as a bad case of the "Yeah-Buts."  "He had a problem with Israel and Jews who support Israel--yeah, but he was trying to build a true Socialist Democracy!" Or so the argument goes.


There is no shortage of criticism of Israel--read any Israeli newspapers lately?  Say what you will about policy and leadership.  But Leftist lovers of the late Hugo Chavez should have the integrity and courage of their convictions to call out a man who couldn't help but hate the Jews.

Perhaps in his death, his delusions won't torment him so much.  The alleviation of that suffering is better for us all.

For further reading, see Adam Chandler at Tablet,  Michael Kaminer in today's Forward, the JTA, and some chilling quotes here in Haaretz.

03 March 2013

Perhaps After the Rains

from outside מקום יפה לקפה in the Galilee
When we headed up North last week from Tel Aviv to the Golan Heights, we stopped off at Kibbutz Ein Shemer, to learn about their Ecological Greenhouse project they have developed in order to teach science to local Israel and Palestinian high school students who live in the area.

It's an inspiring little place, which began to lay the groundwork for an emerging idea that has brewing in my mind ever since boarding the return flight to Brooklyn:  how to actively engage youth between Brooklyn and Israel in a way to involve the community in meaningful work to achieve peace.  Our walk around Jaffa with the Coexistence Tour left us wanting.  It's always nice when people are talking but there was an impatience fermenting in the group for more action-oriented ideas.  Ein Shemer's Ecological Greenhouse is not overly ambitious but it is educationally meaningful and does what ought to be done with youth from different backgrounds:  puts them into teams to solve problems that are not directly related to the classically intractable problems like peace and security.  Developing alternative energy sources from algae; exploring ways to improve irrigation; farming fish and using their waste for fertilizer are all as much in their self-interest as peace and security, especially given the reality that besides what appears to be irreducible hatred among Israelis and Palestinians, there is a dangerous shortage of water.  And people have been saying for years that war in the Middle East is as much about water rights as anything else.

This became abundantly clear to us the next day when we took a morning hike in the Banias National Park, a verdant overflow of water falls and beautiful, blooming plant life fed by the springs that descend from the Hermon Mountain.  There is the territorial issue with Syria to contend with (though given Syria's present state of revolution and violent instability, it seems increasingly clear that Israel will never negotiate away that territory gained in victory after the Six Day War--I certainly wouldn't.)  But one of the reasons the Golan Heights is so valuable--along with its militarily strategic vistas into Lebanon, Syria and Jordan--is that it sits atop crucial water sources that feed all of Israel--Hermon tributaries, Jordan River tributaries, and the Kinneret.

I took some early morning runs up there in the Golan Heights--sunrise adventures on narrow roads with no shoulders, perhaps a bit careless on my fiftieth birthday but nevertheless a thrill.  Thousands of birds crowded the skies and watered areas, en route between Africa and Europe with their semi-annual stop-over in the Hula Nature Reserve.  Herons, igrets, parrots perched atop irrigation tents; an occasional car on a foggy, lonely road, lurching past a few of us running single file, aware of borders.  Later in the day, while hiking around Bental, we'd hear the sonic boom of fighter jets, as we had the day before at Kibbutz Ein Shemer, a message in the sky to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Assad in Syria that whatever troubles are brewing across the border ought to stay there.  

There's a kind of dug-in seriousness to things, a sense that no matter what, Israel is not moving.  I say this because so much of the nasty anti-Israel discourse that American Jews are conscious of can be its own debilitating, deteriorating force that sows doubt, division, and distance between Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel.  Watching Israel from a distance, traveling there annually and leading dozens on trips each year, I am certain that despite the bloodshed of existential wars, rocket attacks, suicide bombs and the draining, moral dilemma inducing costs of ruling over the West Bank (with the pathetically requisite attempts of world leaders to turn Israel into a pariah state) Israel is strong.  Immovable.  Dug in.  

There will be peace.  There will be compromise.  I have no doubt about that.  It has to happen.  But it will only come from a place of strength--and it must, given the reality that surrounds Israel today. 

In the meantime, one can discern these small glimmers of hope on the horizon, at the edges, on the seam, but also right in the middle of the country.  

Matti Friedman captures some of this in his piece on Jerusalem in the New Israel Times.  He writes, "There is still no great love among the city’s different groups. There are steep inequalities in municipal services and funding between Israeli citizens and the one-third of the city’s residents who are Palestinian Arabs. The meeting of the different groups is often charged and occasionally violent. But Jerusalem in 2013 is a more integrated city than it has been in decades."

I found that to be true more than ever before--stronger than last year, which was stronger than the year before.  It makes you wonder about how democracies actually work.  Are the career planners and city administrators often more effective at making change than the politicians who are elected based as much on speeches and rhetoric more than actual results?

Teachers, transportation professionals, small business owners, hold more power in their hands than people may give them credit for.  While we wait for heads of state to sit down and draw borders, the impatient people pick up pencils and paper and do it themselves.  

"In this summer of wide-open-eyed hatred and blind love," wrote Yehuda Amichai after the 1967 war, "I'm beginning to believe again in all the little things that will fill the holes left by the shells:  soil, a bit of grass, perhaps after the rains, small insects of every kind."