25 July 2013

New Vistas

Yesterday was one of the more challenging days on the Bronfman Youth Fellows summer, our first full foray into the dynamic of  the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  While we had already visited the Knesset earlier in the week, including meeting with MK Dov Lipman and staff members of Labor MK Stav Shaffir and PM Bibi Netanyahu (with a spontaneous Knesset hall chat with Labor MK Merav Michaeli) those experiences were in the relatively air-conditioned corridors of power.

Our day Wednesday was about the heat of engagement:  a four hour tour with Ir Amim, which tracks settlement and infrastructure policy in East Jerusalem; a two hour tour through the Mount of Olives cemetery with Settler Activist Yishai Fleisher; and finally, another two hours with Palestinian journalist Ziad Khalil Abu Zayyad, founder of the Middle East Post, which is a blog about politics in the region.

There are many aspects of one's day on the Bronfman Youth Fellowships program that one could argue are "essential" experiences; and I suppose what was particularly resonant for me yesterday was that this summer, my fifth as a faculty member for BYFI, I have chosen to teach a variety of texts in a class which I'm calling "Foundation Documents of Jewish and Palestinian Nationalism."

Given the ever-shifting dynamics (and this summer we have witnessed US Secretary of State Kerry's efforts toward creating peace talks to be a potentially welcome step toward peace), I thought it would be useful to look at some of the "sacred texts" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up close.

We have read Pinsker's "Auto-Emancipation," essays by Asher Zvi Ginzberg (Ahad Haam) and Theodor Herzl along with the First Zionist Congress' Basle Declaration, the Balfour Declaration, Negib Azouri's "Program of the League of the Arab Fatherland," exchanges between Emir Feisal and Chaim Weizmann, the Arab Republic Manifesto, the PLO Constitution and Charter, Fatah's Seven Points, along with poetry--from Tchernikovsky and Bialik to Mahmoud Darwish.  We've looked at a few maps, too.

It's a lot to cover in four 75 minute sessions.  I haven't made it through all the material yet.  But that's hardly the point.

The genius of this program for the 26 North American teens who participate is to plant seeds for further learning and understanding, on one hand, and give them the tools to make connections throughout the summer and beyond for how varieties of ideas and institutions in ancient and contemporary Jewish life are bound together by a highly complex but inspiring narrative of the ever-evolving Jewish people.


So there we were yesterday, wilting in the heat of the day but pressing ahead to understand and grasp borders, agreements, housing policies, municipal boundaries, checkpoints and the mosaic of geopolitical issues from tombs and taxis to fresh mint tea.  Off in the distance from Har Homa, a controversial settlement in southeast Jerusalem, one can see Herodium, where King Herod is buried, not too far in the distance in the West Bank.  Or Judea.  Or the Occupied Territories.  We talked about Ottoman deeds and British Mandates and Jordanian law and Israeli law and the United Nations and Bush and Clinton and Barak and Arafat and Bibi and Abbas and Kerry and Obama.
While sitting in the shade atop Mount Scopus, looking east toward E1, while our guide explained what could go right and what could go wrong in the weeks ahead, I hoped the Fellows were also hearing voices of those we read.  I hoped they heard, echoing beyond the crows cries and historical documents, the words from the Hebrew poet Shlonsky, "Here the lovely city says the morning prayer to its Creator. And among the creators is your son Abraham, a road-building bard of Israel," while simultaneously the wind carried the Palestinian poet Darwish, "Today Job cried out, filling the sky:  Don't make an example of me again!"  Because everyone and everything makes history here in the land.

From there we went to walk in the Jewish cemetery in the Mount of Olives.  We walked among stones and burial plots, looked down upon the City of David and the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount, reminding ourselves of a Jewish presence in the land of Israel for more than three thousand years while contending with documents of Palestinian nationalism which decry Zionism as a mere colonial and imperial construct, a foreign element in the land.  We were led around by a Jewish media professional and Settler Activist named Yishai Fleisher, who lives in a Jewish settlement in the middle of the Palestinian neighborhood Ras al Amud.  This settlement was built by American right-wing philanthropist Irving Moskowitz and is highly controversial.  Fleisher walks about the graveyard, charismatically telling his story:  Israeli born, law school and dissatisfying career in the U.S. followed by desire to return to Jerusalem to claim the land and tell the triumphant story of Jewish history. Beneath the Rastafarian man purse on his hip, Fleisher totes a handgun.  He says he doesn't feel welcome in his neighborhood which he does not call by its Palestinian name but instead refers to as Maale Ha-Zeitim.

In one rhetorical burst of energy, Fleisher says that "Arabs" (he purposely avoids the term "Palestinian") will live in a "modified democracy" in his version of the Jewish state.  They will be granted provisional rights.  He says, "This place was created first as a Jewish state, then a democratic state."  But my students know their documents.  One of them leans into me and says, "But didn't we read in the Israel Declaration of Independence that Israel will 'uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens?'"  Ben Gurion's voice colliding with Fleisher's.

Ben Gurion who built homes here; Fleisher, who rents from a Floridian casino owner.  Rich and troubling experiences.  At one point, Fleisher led us to Menahem Begin's grave and told moving stories about Begin's request to be buried on the Mount of Olives next to two Jewish freedom fighters who killed themselves in order to also kill British soldiers during the Mandate period.  "Suicide bombers," one student noted.  "We each have them."  In the distance Fleisher gestured to the Temple Mount as Muslim worshippers left the al Aqsa mosque and their Ramadan prayers.  He spoke passionately of the Third Temple.
Since the Palestine Charter of July 1968 denied the Jewish claim to nationality (a text we looked at along with David Samuels interview with Maen Rashid Areikat, Palestine's Ambassador to Washington in which he couldn't acknowledge a Jewish presence in Jerusalem from two thousand years ago) one could certainly understand the frustration with the denial of historical narratives.  Still, here was a Jewish settler smiling but denying the existence of a Palestinian people while angrily decrying their denial of a Jewish people.

Pretty nutty stuff.

But we're Jews and our textual tradition demands we end with hope.  So it was that Ziad Khalil Abu Zayyad, a twenty-seven year old journalist from East Jerusalem and founder of the Middle East Post, spoke to the fellows for more than two hours, just after having finished his Ramadan fast.  He was expansive and generous and honest in his remarks.  He had ease with the Jewish narrative and pride in his Palestinian identity.  He was, for all of us, a sign of great promise for two nations sharing the land in peace.

It's generally the BYFI ethic with regard to the study of texts that we claim their relevance in our lives because they represent for us a living, ongoing expression of Jewish civilization for more than three thousand years.  And while it may be dangerously habitual of us to think that texts bind us to the past, in fact what we learn is that as precedent for understanding they root us in the past while releasing us into a present and future with new understanding.

The base of a mountain is its foundation.  But the climb upward, if we're willing to make it, demonstrates strengths we may never have known we had while revealing to us new vistas, from new angles, for a future we may never could have imagined down below, in the past.

16 July 2013

The Almighty Enjoys the Fight

someone's always watching
In the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, carved Crusader crosses, from soldiers on duty, mark the walls throughout the Church.  One imagines endless boredom or enfevered zealotry channeled through the end of a divine killing tool, marking the sacred with hands that doth profaned much.  The streets and alleyways of ancient Jerusalem often flowed with blood during those years and its never not humbling to walk about inside and see the humble pilgrim, the bloated tourist, the religious guardians and the watchful interlopers, navigating its dark, scented chapels.

Outside, the enveloping sun predominated over a few precious manifestations of shade, one such spot a wall separating the Mosque of Omar from the Church.  The minaret, calling out Ramadan prayers not long before the Church's noon bells rang.

I checked my watch.  In several hours we would gather as a community, on a thick-bladed grassy hill overlooking the Old City and read from Lamentations, the Jewish tradition's mournful, primal scream at the Babylonian rape and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.  Steeled against the harsh theology of God's punishment of the Jewish people, the subjugation of the children of Israel to famine, persecution and exile, I submitted to the sun's punishing heat.  We traversed the Old City, made our way in to the Silwan and City of David, where the country's most political and most fascination archaeological dig occurs.  An uneasy alliance of settlement politics, history and archaeology intersect here, demonstrating with incontrovertible evidence that there has been a Jewish presence in Jerusalem for more than three thousand years.   I had a wish yesterday that Mahmoud Abbas had the courage to walk with us.  To simply declare what is true:  Jews have always been here.  Now let's draw up borders and move on.

Living with paradox:  On the eve of remembering the destruction of Jerusalem we climb through recently discovered tunnels and atop Roman roads that were trod upon by Jewish pilgrims going to the Temple to offer prayer and sacrifice.  We were here.  We are here.   We will always be here.  Provided we never forget.  Oh, yeah, and as Lamentations will make clear:  provided we don't screw it up.

Before history there was only theology and philosophy.  Tragic events were understand to have occurred for a reason--either as reward or punishment or for a mysterious reason to be revealed at a different, future time.  But I don't believe in that God and for that reason, like many of my teachers, choose not to fast on this day.  While deeply respectful of the commitment made from others, I read today in protest of that God; question his anger and his violence; walk along the borders of his territory and peer over the fence of his impotent omnipotence.  איכה.  Eichah--How doth the city sit solitary, asks Lamentations.  The abused, metaphorical sister city of peace.  No.  I start Lamentations with the same word, איכה but translate it as "where are you?"

Where are you in your power, God, while others are trampled and abused?  Where are you while the innocent suffer?  Where are you while injustice prevails?

I reserve my fast for Yom Kippur, cognizant of the abundance of sin I have to atone for.  But on this day I study and eat.  But especially study.  Since, as one friend's grandfather once said, "Ignorance isn't an option."

Of course I could argue against myself.  Yom Kippur is an individual repenting for his sins; Tisha B'Av is for the nation.  An orthodox colleague told me yesterday about a group of religious Jews who were planning on assembling at Yitzhak Rabin's grave last night, to read Lamentations there, to publicly come to terms with what it meant that an Orthodox Jew murdered Rabin.  There is a case to be made for the necessity of public expiation; of an acknowledgement of shared responsibility for when things go wrong at home.  Atonement for assent; for silence; for passive inaction.

But I'm not there.  For me, the protest is more vital.  It's like fuel for the fight:  a resistance against the idea of an all-powerful God who allows the innocent to suffer.  And further, how do I look out across a rebuilt city in a rebuilt state speaking a rebuilt language and testifying to the uncommon achievement of an idea that one must no longer wait for a messiah to return a people of faith to their land but rather exists because of an impatience with waiting; a rejection of powerlessness; a refusal to any longer be punished by an invisible, all-knowing God.

Should the sun burn bright today, let me find shade in the words; ease in their rhythm; challenge, dissent, comfort and wisdom in the generations of those who came before us, making sense of their lives, in their time, so we can make sense of ours.

Tisha B'Av is my day of rebellion.  Something tells me the Almighty enjoys the fight.

10 July 2013

Love Fertilizes Eggs

It always comes down to the eggs.

There's the old joke, of course, about what came first.

There's the fact that each of us comes from a mother's egg.

And then there are the eggs that are thrown these days in Israel--generally by Haredi men and women--in some kind of protest or another.

The egg:  a generative source of protein and life.

The egg:  the foundation stone, as it were, of the very first step in the process of becoming.

The egg:  useless on its own and wasted when broken on the ground but delicious, diverse, strong and fortifying when manipulated, prepared, cooked and collaboratively added to an orchestra of other foods and condiments and spices.  (Have I gone too far?)

Rather than give in to the temptation of righteous anger and outrage (there's enough of that in this old world) I began thinking of the recent round of Haredi protests as the last gasps of a fundamentalist community recognizing against its will that Time, that inexorable and mysterious Reality of Existence, has finally caught up with the valiantly insular but now ossified culture that like a threatened mother bird kills its young for fear of contamination.  Don't touch a bird's egg, a child learns:  the mother bird will reject it.

But the irony shines forth:  an egg is only good when touched.  A female egg and a male egg make a life.  An egg and a chef make a meal.  Engagement, interaction, combination, and recombination, is the source of all existence.

No man is an island.  Nor is he an egg.

Hasidic and Haredi culture have given the Jewish people some of its greatest teachers; some of its most enduring lessons of Torah, of the life of sacrifice, of the transcendent value of Jewish prayer, of the most profound expressions of love and kindness in community that have ever been known in the history of human civilization.  And, as we know from history, Hasidic and Haredi culture came to be in an historical environment that was often hostile, oppressive, dangerous and violent to the Jewish people.  Separation was not only a religious choice to hold at bay the potential threat of a hostile culture; separation was also imposed upon the Jew, relegating the Jew to the status of the despised and reviled Other of European life.  There was the self-imposed ghetto to be sure; but its dangers paled in comparison to the insidious hatefulness of the ghetto legislated, decreed and imposed upon Jewish communities for centuries.

And what we too often forget (while sometimes focusing on our own personal traumas) is that Haredi cultures carries an enormous pride in having re-populated Jewish life that was obliterated and exterminated and utterly wiped off the face of the earth by Nazi Fascist policies and abhorrent genocidal crimes during the Second World War.  That tectonic tear deep in the alluvial soil of European Jewish life was trauma that would require nearly a century to heal.  Genocide's echoes are heard far and wide.  Those echoes may distort reality, to be sure; but those echoes resound, and give shape to fearful defensiveness that we ought not to be too quick to judge.

When eggs fly through the air at fellow Jews asking for the right to pray freely; or when eggs fly at a Jewish nation asking for mandatory public service of all its citizens, those eggs are desperate fears flung skyward; twisted taunts wrought by centuries of fear and confusion of the contaminating Other, a fear mis-applied, tragically read incorrectly into the prevailing winds of the evolution of the Jewish people.

The dynamism of the militarily strong, Hebraically rich, economically powerful, technologically triumphant, culturally critical Jewish state today was absolutely unimaginable to the first Haredim who donned the dark clothing of masters and rabbis and teachers in order to fortify themselves, in uniform behavior, against a world which sought to remove the Jew from the world.  Such a totally defensive posture is not necessary any longer.   Similarly, the diversity of American Jewish life, along with certain incontrovertible facts--like Jews in government, finance, law, art, culture, academia and on and on is a testimony to a confidence of identity, to a richness of life, to an embrace of Jewishness that while not wholly similar to Haredi life is surely open to an understanding of how Judaism and its three thousand year tradition of Torah, Mitzvot, Values and Community can enhance and enrich one's day to day existence.  These facts--the radical acceptance of Jews--while posing the usual risks generated by the fear of assimilation, are, like Zionism, realities that were again, unimaginable to those first Haredi Jews.

The generative realities of contemporary Jewish life is only limited by its own sometimes prejudicial insistence on painting Haredi Jews in one light.  For any knowledgable observer of contemporary Jewis life knows that Haredim are entering the workforce; they are signing up for the military in Israel; they have been earning advanced degrees and studying psychology and trauma therapy and business in order to slowly but surely learn to bridge the perceived gap between the false construct of the secular and religious worlds.

The greatest minds in the greatest yeshivas during the greatest eras of Haredi and Hasidic thought were clearly minds that were also steeped in the learning and traditions of other cultures.  From the early first and second century sages studying with Greco-Roman thinkers to Hasidic masters learning with Christian mystics, the brave and confident among us would do well to remain humble when faced with the reality of how complex and multi-layered learning, and progress actually are.  It's that things generally go wrong when communities close themselves off, adopt a defensive posture, and, in a most non-generative manner, lash out.

By, among other things, throwing eggs.

It may be that what we are witnessing today in the great egg throwing debacles of 2013 are among the last gasps of a painful loss in the battle for respect and singularity of a specific Jewish culture that prides itself on its ability to create Jewish continuity after centuries of unimaginable loss.  I certainly hope that's true.

And I guess I write this to say to those readers out there:  don't despair.  Don't conclude that all Haredi Jews are terrible.  Or that Orthodox Judaism is medieval and stupid.  Or even that "they" simply hate women.

The greater engagement today--with assimilating Haredi Jews into the army and the workforce; with strengthening the hands of those who want to leave the Haredi world and enter the secular world despite sanction and fear; with dealing with poverty and education and workforce issues in America as well--all of these need our attention and care and love, not our disgust and righteous scorn.

It's easier to hate from a distant than to love up close.  But let's face it:  love fertilizes eggs.

A few eggs flew at the Kotel.  A few eggs flew at police.  But most--like their secular Jewish brothers and sisters--remain indifferent to the vile and divisive protestations of the few.  Most, like you and me, are saving their eggs for brises and bar mitzvahs; for weddings and funerals; or perhaps most simple and most sublime, for nice omelet, with some salt and pepper, a piece of toast, and a nice cup of coffee.

An egg is a great way to start your day.  If you get a rotten one, just shrug your shoulders and move on.

09 July 2013

On Track

On my first visit to Israel in 1985, I took the train from the old Jerusalem station with two other students from Hebrew University (a Brit and a German) all the way to Haifa.  Nearly thirty years ago, the station was rundown and on its last legs.  Now it's a chic new public shopping and event space, and the old tracks consist of several miles of some of the most beautiful running and biking lanes you'll ever see.  For the last couple years I've run its length on each visit, marveling at the way in which Jerusalem continues to be built and rebuilt:  an historical, religious, political, demographic, and sometimes controversial mandate that goes back to King David's first decision to conquer what was then a series of small hills and relative backwater of the ancient world.

On that first train ride we chugged out of the city, traversed hills and valleys to the coast, past Jewish neighborhoods and Palestinian neighborhoods, past rosemary, blooming bougainvillea, jasmine and honeysuckle, past cypress, olive, oak, willow and almond trees, past scurrying cats, impossible crows, past the pious and the secular, past memorials to past wars and seething tensions to future showdowns.  Layer upon layer upon layer of a never-ending, eternal life here in the land.

I thought of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley singing about trains, their wheels rolling, tracks clacking, and closed my eyes to the insane layers of identity we each bring to our encounters with this city--mine as American as it was Jewish.

Name the nation and those lenses have been worn to discern the landscape:  Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian; Greek and Roman; German, French, Russian and British; Syrian, Moroccan, Yemenite and Iraqi; Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Italian and the list goes on and on.  That we speak of this as a land of two peoples is, on a certain level, radically reductive and terribly inaccurate.

Our multiple selves; our gnarly, knotted, rooted selves that having already been imposed upon us we in turn impose upon this tired and endlessly tolerant landscape.  No wonder the sun is so bright.  So much inquiry into the corners of our hearts and minds--the city's inhabitants need all the illumination they can get.

Anyway, after a peaceful run up and back on the path yesterday evening, I encountered one young man sitting on the rail, next to an old piece of track.  We exchanged pleasantries in Hebrew that can best summarized in the following manner:

-Have you been running from the beginning?
-Yes.  I have to watch my heart.
-May your heart and your legs sustain you til 120!
-God willing.
-Til 120!  Run til 120!

Already at age 50 I have experienced at least five or six Jerusalems.  I wonder how many I'd see by 120?  Would my left big toe, which aches greatly, make it til then?  Would my left calf, protected now by a compression sock, survive the journey?  Will my heart, genetically tuned to its perilous fate of my forefathers, hold out for the duration?  Those discs in my neck--is their inevitable compression of muscle and bone a fate I can tolerate for 70 more years?

And this is just the body.

How many more religious awakenings will we witness?  How many more illusions of messianic redemption?  Which sides will come to which table to bargain over which borders?

Who will till the soil with whose blood and whose sweat and whose tears?  Whose used up books of prayers to used up gods will fertilize the used up land?  What fruit will it bear?

A train once ran on this path that I run but now its history that rolls from point to point.  The events, the stories they generate, the ways we hear them and understand them, over and over again.

I sat at the Colony restaurant last night, at the edge of the old track, eating dinner, drinking a beer.  One bartender spoke Jerusalem Hebrew.  Another spoke a Hebrew accented with the cadences of South America.  In the kitchen, a young African cleaned dishes and sang to himself songs from home, in a strange land.

Afterward, I walked to the new station and spent time inside Tal Erez's evocative exhibit, A Point of View, featuring noted photographers depictions of Jerusalem through the kitsch of the Viewfinder.  The jarring perspective of an artist's nuanced eye as seen through the toy of a child:  trying on, or finding, a view.
Voices of discovery echoed inside the room; outside the restaurants were full; an outdoor screening of a film festival movie echoed off the walls; children zoomed around on small bikes; a dog, tied to bike stand, barked.

Time refused to sit still.  History continued to be made.  I called my friend Sadek to make lunch plans.  "Ramadan might begin tonight," he said.  We'll know in a little while."

"What do you mean?" I asked.  "We Jews declared a new moon this morning.  It's Rosh Hodesh Av."

"We see things slightly differently," he said, laughing.  The Viewfinders clicked and clacked on their tracks, a train of images rolling past.

Just before 4 am this morning two cats got into a fight.  Two crows woke up.  The muezzins vibrated over the hills with mournful, deep and holy prayers.  I rose from bed, stood at the window, drank the morning air, and imagined it sinking, seeping down, into layer upon layer of one man's time on this ground, in this place, at this time.

08 July 2013

Listen To Your Mother

Let's begin with the positive.

First of all, this morning's Women of the Wall prayer service to welcome the new Hebrew month of Av, an occasion deep and rich with the painful associations of Jerusalem's historic and tragic destruction commemorated by Tisha B'Av, was very well-organized.  A phalanx of buses with police and border patrol escort calmly left Liberty Bell Park on time, wound its way up Mount Zion and toward the Dung Gate, under heavy protection from the threatening protest of ultra-Orthodox Jews who find the idea of women asserting their equal spiritual rights to be, in their own words, "Nazism, Amalekitism, and Reform."  

Second, the Women of the Wall's leaders had a few ground rules for the morning that were clearly articulated to each busload of the more than 350 women and men who joined together in the Old City:  don't engage with the protestors and certainly don't argue with them; this is a prayer service not a political protest; and this is a women's service, not an egalitarian service.  Men were instructed to stand separately and while they were free to pray, they were not holding the service--the women were.

All these guidelines comport quite well with the stated political goals of the group:  to win free and equal access to observe Judaism freely at the Western Wall.  I rode in the same bus as Anat Hoffman, director of IRAC, the Reform movement's social action arm, who often argues for the rights of Women of the Wall before the Israel Supreme Court.  Anat has been claiming (and getting arrested for doing so) that the Western Wall belongs to the Jewish people, not the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical authority that has been granted jurisdiction over this universally beloved religious site.  

After a recent Rosh Hodesh service, Anat was arrested; and in a humiliating and misogynistic move, was strip-searched by the Jerusalem police for the "crime"of a woman reading from the Torah.   Which is to say, since I, a man, can technically read from Torah at the Kotel and she can not, this is *her* movement, not mine, and I was there, with the other men, to *support* the Women of the Wall in their strategy and goals.

Third, and perhaps most important, Women of the Wall tries to balance itself very carefully as an Israeli women's traditional prayer group with the overwhelming sympathy it gets from non-Orthodox and pluralistic Diaspora (mostly American) Jewish leadership.  This is not an "egalitarian" or Reform-Conservative-Orthodox social protest movement.  Women of the Wall built it that way and they get to say so.  It's their movement and those are their rules.  Respect.

But after seeing what I saw this morning, I'd say it's time to change the rules.

First, of the more than 350 people in attendance this morning, I'd say at least a third were men who prayed right alongside the women.  While women led all aspects of the prayer, the power generated by a unified front of women and men together, sent a clear message that equality of gender is a reality that Judaism has been sustaining and regenerating for more than half a century.  While there is not yet full equality (pay disparity in the Jewish professional workforce; leadership of major pulpits and Jewish organizational life; work-life balance issues) more can clearly be accomplished in alliances with one another rather than in a separate battle for equality.  Similarly, one has to really ask the obvious question:  Can a Reform rabbi lead an egalitarian Torah service at the Western Wall?  Can a Conservative rabbi lead an egalitarian Torah service at the Western Wall?  The answer is definitively no.  And therefore it strikes me as a much stronger movement if in fact it were a movement for free and equal access to a Jewish religious site.   The alliance itself would be stronger and more diversified in this broader unity.  

Second, while it was nice to have the police escort this morning--and protection from the kind of irrrational invective and hatred ("Nazis," "Amalekites," "Reforms," were the words tossed alongside eggs and chairs) there is something disturbingly passive and eerily post-Zionist about ceding autonomy for one's Jewish expression to another authority.  Despite the fact that legal agreements in place guaranteeing Women of the Wall access to the Wall itself for its service, the police prevented Women of the Wall from approaching the holy site, claiming that "five to seven thousand young women were already blocking the way," and in an effort to "avoid violence" had decided to relegate the 350 equality seekers to a special area at the edge of the Plaza, near the bathrooms, penned in behind several hundred Haredi young men with whistles, spit and a rather pathetic, if venomous, hatred.

This is Zionism?  Young Haredi men, living on government subsidies to study in yeshivas, refusing to serve in the Israeli army, benefiting from the protection of the Israeli army, heaping abuse on men and women who do serve in the Israeli army, protecting them, so that they can deny their fellow Jews' right to practice their Judaism?   Our colleague Rabbi Sari Laufer of Rodeph Shalom in New York, six months pregnant, had a hard-boiled egg thrown at her, hitting her in the neck, and bringing up a painful welt the size of her hand.  Others were sprayed with water, raw egg, and curses.  According to Haaretz, two arrests were made.  

But the fanatics controlled the battlefield.  They had the Western Wall and while the police gave the appearance of protecting the Patriots for a Free and Equal Judaism, in point of fact, the status quo was protected:  segregation, misogyny, and state-funded yeshiva draft dodgers ruled the day.  

In our troubled and inward looking times, Hannah Senesh is best-known for her spiritual lullaby "Eli, Eli," a song of divine seeking, a calm poem to oneness with God and nature.  I kept wishing for the patriot paratrooper Hannah Senesh to come back from the dead and knock out of a few those boys with a good Hungarian roundhouse, showing them what women are capable of:  from giving birth to children to building a state, from picking up a gun to win its independence and fighting alongside men to defend it.  Prayer is but one dimension of the many ways we men and women are both equal and unique.  

Zionism, in its once radical inception, posited that the "Hope" was to be a "free people in our land."  As disturbing as it was to see one's fellow Jews hurling hatred (and eggs!) at women who labor through pain to bring men (fertilized eggs, no less) into the world, it was equally disturbing to see a movement for religious equality accept the paternalistic condescension of protection from the State as all-knowing Father.  

To my mind, Women of the Wall would do better to issue a rallying cry to world Jewry to show up en mass each month, in mixed prayer, by the thousands, and insist on doing so *at* the Western Wall.  Every Birthright bus, every Federation mission, every Reform, Conservative and Orthodox summer camp trip, and every synagogue tour should make very clear to the Israeli government and to the Golden Goose of the Tourism Ministry that if men and women are not treated equally, "as free people in our land," then we choke off the dollars.  More practical, of course, would be to simply keep up the pressure:  show up to pray; write Israeli leaders; support litigation for equal access.

For Diaspora Jews who don't live here, it's the only leverage available.  And it's a failure of leadership to not hear this stated aloud and unequivocally:  Zionism was meant to guarantee that the Jew needs no permission to be a Jew.  Period.

For 25 years, Women of the Wall have valiantly led the fight for equal rights at Judaism's holiest site.  It's now time to evolve, expand the mission, and claim our right to be free in our land.  The goals for equality of access and worship will be more expediently achieved in a unified, pluralistic movement for shared rights of Judaism's sacred traditions in Judaism's holiest city.

The voices of our mothers demand it.  And after all, shouldn't nice Jewish boys listen to their mothers?

07 July 2013

It Lulls

A smooth flight and a smooth landing.  No complaints with my overhead reading lamp not working.  I simply read John McPhee's "Heirs of General Practice," a brilliant extended essay on family practice doctors.  I even slept for six hours, and then was awakened by the smell of fresh airplane coffee.  I finished the book as the wheels touched down.  How could I not think of the poor souls in San Francisco, who were tragically less fortunate yesterday.

While waiting for the shared taxi to schlep ten random riders to Jerusalem, I relished McPhee's ending--if you haven't read the book, I won't spoil it--laughed, loaded up, and climbed the valley with the others, to the holy city.  We cut through Modiin, skirted past the security barrier, the exit to Ramallah, a couple Jewish settlements and Palestinian towns--equally fenced off from one another--and rolled into a warm Jerusalem night.

My pal Mish welcomed me with a carton of the latest micro-brews.  I unpacked my gear, logged into the Brewers' futile efforts against the Mets, and headed out for a few things.  My friend Jo-Ann called with plans for the Women of the Wall prayer service Monday morning.  Some Haredi rabbis asked young yeshiva girls to show up in force; there's fear of throwing stones and chairs.

At people. Praying. Near a wall.

Beneath my feet the sandy street stones sang a song of welcome; a couple Haredi guys crowded around an ice cream stand; a few secular families saluted one another with hugs and kisses til next time; a scrawny cat slinked past, stopped to stare, then crawled under a car.  Honeysuckle crawled over a wall and sweetened the air.  A baby cried.  Someone played a violin.

I heard McPhee's voice:  "He has no idea what to make of that.  He does not know what to make of the whole situation."

Sometimes things are just the way they are.  And a family doctor helps you understand that when there's no cure, there's always kindness and the presence of another to alleviate one's suffering.  I remember talking about that when I used to tell people why I wanted to be a rabbi.

It's unclear why my grandfather chose to become a doctor.  Had he lived longer, I'd have asked.  Nevertheless, by every measure he was a very good one.  As a young man, he was something of a playground superhero, a settlement house counselor who protected his Jewish brothers in the face of competing ethnic gangs on Milwaukee's near north side, in Lapham Park.  Maybe his special talents for mediating the disputes of youth inspired him to heal.  He graduated Marquette University, a Catholic school, in 1924, the same year my dad was born.  There weren't a whole lot of other Jews in his class.

When I was growing up, Lapham Park was a bit of a rundown area.
Today it's known by name as a residential housing facility for the elderly poor, nearly 100% of whom are African American.  That Pabst plant is gone--its beer the branded bailiwick of hipster Madmen--and besides elderly housing there is a new population of young people moving in to the area, the ubiquitous gentrification that we all know so well.

Here's a picture of Grandpa from medical school, with the Lapham Park banners in the background.  That's Charles Haskel Bachman, future doctor, healer, seated, on the right.
Here's Grandpa in July 1961, in his office at the Plankington Building on Wisconsin Avenue.  He's likely smiling because he no doubt treated another one of Milwaukee's poor for free; and with Grandma back at home, unknowing of his serial decency striking again and therefore powerless to stop it, the sheer mischief made him happy.
My grandparents came to Jerusalem for the first time in 1964.  My grandma was born in Minsk, fled pogroms as a girl, and was raised not far from Lapham Park on Walnut Street, around the corner from Golda Meyerson.  Her father, Chaim Siegel, helped establish an orphanage for Jewish poor, a couple synagogues, and the Milwaukee branch of the Mizrahi Zionists.  Chaim and his wife Rebecca never made it Israel but their daughter did.  My grandparents had two sons, neither of whom ever came to Israel.  Tonight, as the sun reddened Jerusalem hills and my cab climbed into the heaping rock of a city, I reckoned this my 17th visit.

Once I came to find my father's dead soul, chained and hovering unredeemed at the entrance to a nameless cemetery.  Saying Kaddish released him to peace and quiet after a short life of great achievement and shattered dreams.  Once I accompanied my mother through paths of promise, to quit smoking, to heal a divorce, to understand the broad strokes of history that intrude upon simple families living life from moment to moment.  And once I came with my wife and daughters, together to give our girls the opportunity to know Jerusalem beyond its mythological force of the grand cosmological weight of God's words to prophets but rather as a place with a pool, and ice cream, and warm people speaking an ancient language, with love, in new ways.

The cat looked at me as we crossed one another's path tonight.  I was in search of a warm slice of pizza and a cold beer.  "Had grandpa not been a doctor," I reasoned, "I'd have never become a rabbi."  Someone else walking past might have seen me talking to the cat and said, "He has no idea what to make of that.  He does not know what to make of the whole situation."

But me and that cat knew the truth.  It lulls.  As only Jerusalem can.