Monday, April 13, 2009

No Woman, No Cry

I’ll conclude my Kathmandu series with a short account of my evening. 

I rested in my hotel for a few hours.  I’m staying at the Kathmandu Guest House, which is a terrific place.  It’s not upscale, even by Nepali standards; a room costs about $20 per night and is basic but also very clean and comfortable.  But what distinguishes this hotel are its guests and its grounds.  It has beautiful courtyard gardens, which feel like little oases in the chaos of Kathmandu.  And the guests are mostly young travelers from all over the world.  I am definitely a geezer here, which is just fine.  I’ve loved listening to these idealistic young people, and fondly remembering my own experiences backpacking in Europe before starting rabbinical school.  Travel provides a vital education, and I feel very lucky to be back at it, though I also miss my family and friends more than I can say.

Then I set out for dinner, walking through the Thamel, the district of the city that is mostly devoted to tourists, though it retains a great deal of local Nepali flavor, too.  My dinner experience captures that.  I dined at the Northfield Café, where I enjoyed traditional Nepali vegetarian fare with rice (thank goodness for Sephardi Pesach standards!) and American sorbet for desert.  On a stage just a few feet in front of me, a Nepali folk dancer, dressed in a gorgeous silk sari, was performing to the music of a traditional band.  Yet it was hard to hear their music because, across the street, at the Reggae Bar and Grill, the band was blaring the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Bob Marley’s, “No Woman, No Cry” at volume 11 (interesting that no matter where you go in the world, Bob Marley is a universal icon.)  The whole experience was wonderful.  And the meal, an enormous feast, as usual, cost me the equivalent of under four dollars.

Back at the hotel, the power was out.  That wasn’t unusual.  Every day, because of a general energy shortage, the electricity is turned off for about eight hours or so.  This doesn’t happen at regular intervals; it is, rather, arbitrary and completely unpredictable.  I have no doubt that this is terribly enervating to the Nepalis and I would surely complain about it if I was living here, too.  But as a tourist, I rather enjoy it.  It imposes an aura of tranquility, forcing me to leave the computer and my CNN-blaring television.  During this time, much of the hotel is lit by candlelight, which adds a warm and peaceful glow to the night.  I love this stillness.  I don’t want to dismiss the benefits of post-industrial society; it is, however, also important to recognize what our technology forces us to give up.  Like all of life, this is a trade off.

But my serene state was shattered when the power came back on and I went off to the internet café.  While there, I met many Israelis, who are here in large numbers (there are even several falafel stands with Hebrew signs, though most are closed for Pesach.)  One of them had just logged off after 17 minutes on the computer.  When the proprietor charged him for half an hour—the fees are assessed in fifteen minute intervals—rather than 15 minutes, the Israeli began to argue loudly and vehemently, in typical Israeli fashion.  The owner acquiesced and billed the Israeli for only fifteen minutes—a difference that amounted to the equivalent of about twelve cents!  It’s so Israeli, to raise one’s voice and blood pressure and argue so ferociously over twelve cents, just out of principle.  Talk about a culture clash!

And this is ironic because the Nepalese are natural allies to Israel, which needs allies very badly.  My guide, Mangalal, told me that the Nepali people simply cannot fathom the Islamic Arab states, with their jihadist mentality, suicide bombers, and general religious fanaticism.  All of these things are utterly incomprehensible in this society of religious syncretism.  “Besides,” he added, “as a nation bordered by China and India, we know what it is like to live in a neighborhood where you are surrounded by powers that do not much like you.”  And finally, there are lots of similarities between Israeli and Nepali driving habits.  The two nations should, at the very least, co-found a mutual horn-honking appreciation society.  Important political alliances have been forged over less.

Well, I’ve now written much more than enough, so I am going to sign off.  Tomorrow morning, early, I head out on my trek around Annapurna, so allow me to excuse my wordiness today by saying that I’ll be off the grid for the next three weeks.  Wish me well and I will look forward to writing—and, more importantly, hearing from—you all upon my return, some time around May 9.  A continued joyous Pesach to all!

Lunch, Learning, and Little Tibet

Our third stop of the day was Boudhanath, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world.  It is a striking place, marked by its white-washed dome, gold ornamentation, and red, white and blue-painted eyes that gaze over the worshippers who flock to its grounds.  It is especially holy to Tibetan Buddhists, and a large community from Lhasa has made its home in exile here.  A whole Tibetan town of sorts has sprung up around the stupa, with homes, shops, and monasteries.  Indeed, the Dalai Lama himself fled to Nepal after the Chinese invaded Tibet.  Unfortunately, the Chinese applied a great deal of pressure on the Nepali government, which understandably acquiesced to the great power to their north and sent him on to Dharamsala, India.  Politically, Nepal is always engaged in a delicate dance, squeezed between the two great adversarial powers of China and India, trying to appease each without alienating the other.

We entered one of the monasteries, where I saw a prayer wheel the size of a small shanty.  It takes up an entire room, and you spin it as you walk around it, clockwise, of course.  Upstairs in the same monastery, there is a great deal of art—mandalas and scenes from the Buddha’s life, and a beautiful painting called the “Wheel of Life.”  It reminded me a great deal of the Hieronymous Bosch triptych, “Garden of Earthly Delights,” that I’d seen in the Prado in Madrid.  The top half of the wheel portrayed earthly pleasures; the lower half, the torments of hell.  As in the Bosch painting, hell was more vivid than paradise.

We toured some shops owned and operated by Tibetan refugees, and I bought a few items: two beautiful, traditional mandalas, and a hand-crafted Nepali “singing bowl.”  I felt good about these purchases, which I will enjoy and give as gifts, and which support hard-working artisans.

After touring the area, Mangalal and I stopped at a rooftop restaurant for a very late lunch.  The food was good—and the conversation great.  I got to know a little more about my soft-spoken, intelligent and kindly Nepali guide.  He is 35 years old, and like most Nepalis, his marriage was arranged by his family.  Interestingly, he told me, “Younger people are now starting to marry out of love.  But the marriages are less successful than those that are arranged.”    His marriage, at least, seems strong—he speaks very lovingly of his wife, who is seven months pregnant with their first child.  He was born in Kathmandu, knows every inch and alleyway of the city (together with all of its history) and drives with maniacal expertise.  He says he is very happy, and this comes off as heart-felt and sincere.  At the same time, he notes that there is a real shortage of work for him as a guide and driver; tourism has declined sharply since 2001, which brought both the events of 9/11 and, locally, the massacre of the royal family and subsequent Maoist coup deposing the succeeding king, who was responsible for the murders. Mangalal is hopeful that things will change soon, declaring, “George Bush ruined much for Nepal and the world, but Obama is making it better.”  This sentiment is broadly shared pretty much everywhere in the world.  I feel lucky to be able to travel proudly as an American again.  Anyway, from his mouth to God’s ear.

Still, Mangalal is hedging his bets.  He has applied for a visa to Canada and, if that fails, hopes to buy a cab here in Kathmandu.  And he tells me that many Nepalis are now working in the oil-rich Gulf States, where they can earn (relatively) large salaries.  And thus another Nepali contradiction: people are looking to get out and go to unhappy places in order to make money, even as they insist that money is not the source of happiness in their tradition, and they seem quite happy here in Nepal despite their poverty.  Mangalal also comments on the drabness of the west: “Look at all of our fabrics here—they are such beautiful colors.  You westerners dress in such dull shades.”  I’ve heard this before, in Boise, from some of the refugees who tend their plots in our synagogue’s community garden.  In a Technicolor world, we are a land of rich but austere grayness.

And with this I have what is perhaps my most striking thought of the day: people are just fine with contradiction here.  In America, and throughout the west, we tend to think in linear, logical terms, like the old Socratic syllogisms: “All men are mortal.  Socrates is a man.  Therefore Socrates is mortal.”  For us, life is a matter of either/or.  We want our paradoxes resolved, come hell or high water.

But that’s not the reality here.  People prefer to live with the mystery, to dwell in the center of the paradox.  Maybe it is, in a sense, the jewel in the lotus.  And so here I am in a country where people are happy in their poverty—and at the same time, seeking work in the miserable Gulf State deserts; where erotic images fill the temples—and guidebooks warn foreigners that immodest dress is an insult to the local culture; where an unabashedly Maoist government presides over a nation with 30,000 deities and 366 religious festivals; where peaceful people drive like maniacs and seven hour gas lines wind past billboards for LG, with their slogan, “Life is Good”; and where, in a city celebrated for its ancient temples, the prime minister’s residence is a cheap knockoff of the palace of Versailles.  Paradox?  Absolutely.  Problematic?  Not here, in a nation that, like Walt Whitman, is glad to contradict itself and contains multitudes.

After our late lunch and conversation, we had time for one more stop: Durbar Square in Patan, the royal palace in a close suburb of Kathmandu.  Patan is also known as Lalitpur, or “the beautiful city” and it lives up to its moniker.  We toured several more Buddhist and Hindu shrines, including the Golden Temple, then drove back to my hotel in Kathmandu.  I bid Mangalal goodnight, and returned to my room exhausted but also deeply content and, I hope, maybe even a little enlightened by the day.

Sitting (with) Shiva

Our next stop was Pashupatinath, the city’s most sacred Hindu site.  It is dedicated to Shiva.  It is impossible to understand its significance without some background on this important figure and some of the other local gods and goddesses.  So, let me offer a very brief primer on what I’ve learned about the Hindu pantheon.  There are thousands of deities, but the Big Three are Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver; and Shiva, who is both the Destroyer and the source of re-generation.  Other significant figures are Shiva’s son, Ganesh, the much beloved elephant-headed god, and the epic hero humans Rama and Krishna, both of whom are incarnations of Vishnu.

Like the Buddhists, Hindus make offerings to their gods and goddesses.  Unlike the Buddhists, for Hindus, these offerings include animal sacrifices.  While the Buddhist stupas contain thirteen steps, representing the thirteen lives it takes to achieve Nirvana, the Hindu temples contain lengthy ribbon-like symbolic ladders to heaven, with over one hundred rungs apiece.  Mangalal said that each rung represents one of the lives it takes for Hindus to reach Nirvana.  When I asked why the Hindu journey takes so much longer than its Buddhist counterpart, Mangalal replied, “Unlike the Buddhists, we sacrifice animals.  We know that this is bad karma, which must be resolved through many lives.  But what can we do?  Our gods demand blood.”

OK—now that you have the scene and the cast of characters, on with the story.  We wove our way through Pashupatinath, which is a major Hindu pilgrimage site, its significance akin to that of Mecca for Moslems.  Shiva is said to have appeared here incarnated as a deer.  His image is omnipresent, in stone carvings, woodwork, and statues.  Often he is portrayed with blue skin, for it is said that the sea was filled with poison until he drank it out and thereby saved the world.  Perhaps for this reason he is often garlanded with serpents. He was a great slayer of demons, who also accidentally beheaded his son, Ganesh, whom he then “healed” by grafting an elephant head to his body (interestingly, Ganesh went on to become the god of good luck!)  And his consort, Parvati—also known as Annapurna—is, by reputation, even fiercer than him.  All of this goes a long way toward explaining his tendency toward volatility.

But the main image of Shiva in Pashupatinath—and many other Nepali temples dedicated to him—is his penis.  There are hundreds of phalluses here, known as shiva lingas.  As I said earlier, some things are universal.  Boys will be boys, even (or especially) if they are feared and revered as gods of destruction and re-generation, kind of like rock musicians and NBA stars.  Oddly enough, for all those penises, it was pretty hard to find a men’s room at the temple.

Hindu holy sites are also full of graphic carvings of couples copulating in every imaginable position.  Mangalal called these images “Nepali sex education.”  I’ve read that the stained glass of medieval cathedrals was designed to teach the stories of the Bible to the illiterate masses.  I guess Hindus also used art to educate.  One can only imagine what the contemporary fundamentalists would make of this.  Actually, we need not just imagine.  For all of the sacred erotic art in Nepal, there were many more icons that have been defaced or stolen, especially by the Moslems who tried, unsuccessfully, to conquer the country in the thirteenth century.  When the Taliban destroyed ancient images in Afghanistan, they were not doing anything new.  The same impulse was evident when John Ashcroft ordered that the nude statues in the US Capitol building be covered with cloth garments, or when rampaging Hasidim in Jerusalem burn down bus stops with ads showing women in “immodest” dress.

With all of that eros, a little (or a lot) of death can’t be far away. . . and it isn’t.  We, westerners, avert our eyes from death; here, it is an inescapable part of life.  Pashupatinath borders the Dhobi Kola River, which eventually flows into the sacred Ganges and is, therefore, holy by association.  The river banks are lined with ghats, Hindu cremation platforms.  I watched several cremations taking place: mourners wailed while just a few feet away, bathers splashed happily, and monkeys scampered back and forth between the two groups, jumping off bridges and swimming through floating garbage and flower garlands.  There were also clusters of priests, shaving mourners’ heads, and mostly naked, heavily made-up and dread-locked sandhus, Hindu holy men sitting in contorted yoga positions—some genuine, others just fakes taking money to pose with tourists for pictures. 

All of this was, to say the least, an eyeful for me, and I will never forget it.  It felt like I was given a glimpse that contained a universe: life, death, joy, sorrow, men and women and children and animals, nature and urban culture, sacred and profane.  To complete the scene, we crossed the river and entered an old age home, for the unfortunate elderly poor who are not taken in by their relatives, as is customary in Nepali culture.  Their rooms look like a prison or barracks, with dozens squeezed into narrow halls filled with tiny wooden sleeping platforms, men on one side, women on the other.  The home’s lattice windows look out on the burial platforms, surely a harbinger of things to come.  In the central courtyard of the facility stands an ancient pipal or bodhi tree.  It was under such a tree that the Buddha, Siddharta Gautama (who was born in Lumbini, Nepal) found enlightenment while meditating in India; for Hindus, the pipal is also one of the many incarnations of the sustainer-god, Vishnu.  And for the elderly residents here, it was a fine source of shade. 

Last but not least, I saw the largest statue in the Pashupatinath, though, as a non-Hindu, I could only glimpse it through a doorway.  It is a huge, gleaming gold bull.  Shiva is said to have ridden such an animal, and it is, for Hindus, a symbol of strength and power.  But for me, as a Jew, this conjured up very different images, which brought me back to a subject I’d not surprisingly been contemplating much of the morning: idolatry.

How, as a rabbi and as a Jew, do I respond to this very foreign culture, with its thousands of gods and goddesses and myriads of images?  This was different, and new to me.  I’ve lived under Christianity for my entire life, and had many encounters with Islam.  Of course these faiths are sometimes at odds with Judaism (think about public school in December, or the Middle East any day of the year) but these disagreements, however serious, are like fights within the family.  We differ on much, but we share significant common values and roots, even when we are killing one another.

But the religious experience here is utterly other to me.  It’s like living in an uncanny dream, and then waking up, utterly disoriented, in the mysterious home of inscrutable strangers.  I saw so much that was the complete antithesis of the religious life I’ve practiced and taught.  Just consider the mourners I saw along the river banks.  It begins with cremation.   Then, the mourners shave their heads and, for the next thirteen days, do not touch another human being, or even food prepared by another human being.  They pray in temples full of penises (uncircumcised, of course!) and also swastikas (which, one must note, were their symbol long before the Nazis profaned it.)  How foreign this all feels!  For us, cremation goes along with the swastikas, but with such different and dark associations.  During our morning periods, we refrain from shaving.  The whole point of shiva (the Jewish version, not the god) is to be surrounded by others, who embrace us and prepare our meals.  And given our tradition’s aversion to images of any sort, it is hard to imagine a giant phallus at the center of a synagogue (though some congregants, gazing out at their not-so-beloved rabbi or cantor, might not find this so unusual.)

So this whole Nepali experience made me a little uneasy.  And that is good: life—religious life especially—should not be about staying in one’s comfort zone all the time.  I’m sticking with my good, old-fashioned, original monotheism, but, hopefully, in a more open and thoughtful way in the wake of this encounter.  As I noted earlier, I’m realizing that in their polemic against paganism, the prophets sell it short.  To begin with, for all the differences, it is also hard not to see ourselves in some of the Hindu and Buddhist practices.  Judaism began as a sacrifice-centered tradition, too.  We offered up our share of animals and poured plenty of blood upon our altars.  This is so very evident in the Torah portions that we are reading these days, from the book of Leviticus, which consists primarily of detailed descriptions of the korbanot, the sacrificial cult.  And lest we think that we are so superior in our thinking, Mangalal explained to me that many Buddhists and Hindus actually believe that there is only one God; for them, the whole pantheon of gods and goddesses is a kind of metaphorical expression of different aspects of divine power—rather like the kabbalistic sefirot in our tradition, or the Christian trinity.  Yes, there are plenty of Buddhists and Hindus who take this stuff literally, but we Jews don’t lack for fundamentalists who literally believe the world is 5769 years old, either.  I’ve always believed that religion—any religion—becomes ridiculous when taken literally.  It’s all about metaphor, and there can be a great deal of overlap between our metaphors.  I don’t want to minimize the very real differences between faiths, but there are also profound similarities, places where we come full circle and meet.  Perhaps sitting shiva and sitting with the mourners in the shadow of Shiva is not so different as it seems.


Kathmandu, in a Stupa (or the Jew in the Lotus)

It is hard to even begin to describe the sights I encountered today.  Unbelievable.  Kathmandu is chaotic and sprawling and dirty and dazzling and utterly fascinating.  It is also full of contradictions (more on that to come.)  I’ve been to my share of places in the world, but nothing like this; unlike in Europe or the Middle East, here you really feel like you have entered an entirely different universe.

So I’m going to try to capture some of the highlights, and offer my thoughts as I go.  This will, no doubt, result in a rambling style, full of  non-sequitors.  That’s just the nature of the place, at least as experienced by this westerner.  To help sort things out, I’m also going to divide this day into four different blog entries.  Bear with me. 

I met my guide, Mangalal, at 8:45 am in the hotel lobby.  As we hit the road, I was once again incredibly thankful to have a skilled chauffeur.  Driving is definitely a challenging profession here, not for amateurs.  Mangalal pointed to a banner proclaiming that tomorrow night, Kathmandu will be celebrating Bisket, the Newari New Year (the Newari are the Hindu upper class, Nepal’s version of Brahmins, the dominant local culture.)  I was excited about this, but Mangalal was nonchalant, for he noted that there are, in fact, 366 festivals per year here in Nepal, on account of the mix of religions, regions, and cultures.  In his home town of Bhaktapur, outside Kathmandu,  the people construct a giant chariot containing the deities Bhairav and Bhadrakali, which becomes the object of a tug-of-war between the residents of the eastern and western parts of town.  Apparently, this also involves a considerable amount of drunkenness, as last year two people were run over by the chariot.  Some things are the same everywhere!  At any rate, this will be the year 2066.  When I asked why, Mangalal recounted the legend of an insatiable princess of Bhaktapur who would take a new lover every night—because each morning, the previous night’s partner would be found dead in her bedroom.  Finally, a determined royal prince with a plan stepped forward and offered himself to the beautiful but lethal princess.  After a torrid night of love, he feigned sleep, but watched secretly as two poisonous serpents emerged from the nostrils of his sleeping princess.  He drew his sword and hacked the snakes into twenty pieces.  When the sun rose, he was alive, the princess was in love, and the town lived happily ever after.

As Mangalal finished the story, we arrived at Swayambhunat, a Buddhist temple (known here as a stupa) which is over 2500 years old.  Its origins are mysterious.  According to the local mythology, the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake, upon which floated a single, miraculous lotus blossom.  Many came to see its glory; eventually a great sage cleaved the Valley wall with his flaming sword, thereby draining the lake and enabling the lotus to settle on dry ground.  On the site of that flower, the Swayambhunat erected itself, high on a hill, overlooking the city.  Centuries later, it became a favorite place for the hippies who invaded Kathmandu in the ‘60s.  But they were usually too stoned to pronounce its name, so they called it the “Monkey Temple,” on account of the hordes of monkeys that frequent the grounds.

It is incredibly beautiful, filled with statues and prayer flags.  Each chorten, or prayer shrine, contains thirteen steps, representing the thirteen lives that Buddhists believe it takes to achieve nirvana.  The omnipresent prayer flags are always five colors.  Red represents fire, yellow is for earth, green for vegetation, white for wind, and blue for water.  Each flag has written upon it the words, “Om mane padme om,” the unofficial mantra of Nepal, praising the “jewel in the lotus.” 

The other ritual item one sees all over the temple are prayer wheels.  One always spins them clockwise (one also always walks clockwise through the grounds of the spiral-designed stupa.) Interestingly, these prayer wheels represent a concession to modernity.  In ancient times, monks would chant Om mane padme om up to ten thousand times a day.  But who has the time for such things now?  Thus, ingeniously, someone thought to put a scroll, with this inscription repeated time and again, inside a cylindrical wheel; every time you spin the wheel, sending those inscriptions around and around, it is as if you said your om mane padme om ten thousand times.  If only a good Talmudic sage had come up with such a short cut for the daily shacharit (morning) service!

Alas, the view from the Swayambhu is compromised by the pollution.  Kathmandu is growing so fast that no one really knows the population any more; it is certainly over three million.   Most of this growth consists of younger people moving from the countryside, which has suffered with political instability.  Mangalal looked out and said sadly, “Just ten years ago, all of this was rice fields.”  It’s the same story everywhere, I guess, from Meridian, Idaho to Nepal. 

Amazingly, right next to the Buddhist stupa, on the grounds of the “Monkey Temple,” there is another shrine, which is recognizable, by its pagoda-shape, as a Hindu temple.  Looking at it, I thought of the mosque/cathedral I’d seen in Cordoba.  But here, the co-existence is happy rather than competitive or triumphalist.  Buddhists pray in Hindu sites, Hindus pray in Buddhist sites.  The two traditions even share and co-opt one another’s gods and goddesses, harmoniously.  Religious syncretism is the rule here; Mangalal told me that there are over 33,000 divinities worshiped in his country.

This was my first large-scale encounter with polytheism, and it was fascinating for me, as a rabbi.  Jewish tradition is highly critical of polytheists, but as I toured Kathmandu, I recognized that the Torah’s critique is not entirely accurate.  I’m not going to start worshipping multiple deities, of course—I said my Sh’ma this morning in good faith—but I do have to concede that the Eastern path has its share of virtues.  We monotheists—Jews, Christians, and Moslems—have a tendency towards intolerance.  This is natural—if you believe that there is only one God, then anyone who believes in other gods and/or goddesses is, by definition, an idolater.  But if you believe in many, there is always room for one more.  Monotheism’s weakness is that it can easily slide into fanaticism; polytheism has a kind of “live and let live” attitude that is very evident in Nepal.  There is no triumphalism whatsoever here.  Nepalis also exhibit much less messianic fervor than we, monotheists, do.  Local Buddhists believe that a new Buddha will arise and bring peace every five thousand years—but since that still leaves 2500 years until the next one comes, they are not exactly rushing out chanting, “We want moshiach now!”  All of this is a nice thing after being in Jerusalem, which is home to me and my tradition, but also a bit oppressive at times.

Upon leaving the temple, Hindu visitors leave ritual offerings, known as puja for their gods and goddesses: corn, rice, flowers, fruit.  They mix these offerings with clay, then apply a red streak of the mixture to their foreheads, between their eyes.  This is called a tika, or “third eye,” and it symbolizes the presence of the sacred.  Eyes are also a leitmotif of Buddhist stupas, which are painted with the eyes of the Buddha, gazing out in compassion at his followers.  As we left, we passed a group of chanting monks, and a gathering of birds and monkeys helping themselves to the puja offerings.  I was already dizzy with thoughts, sights and sounds. . . and we’d just begun.

A Tired but Happy Jew in Kathmandu

I left Jerusalem on Friday evening.  It was hard to say goodbye to the girls, especially Rosa, as I will not see her for another four months.  I cried, of course, as I walked back to my bed and breakfast to catch the shuttle to the airport.  And when I was there, I had more goodbyes: to Danny Flax, the proprietor, and two of the guests with whom I'd grown quite close over our ten days together: Elsie from Australia and Alan from New Zealand, both sweet-natured Christian Zionists in Israel for a lengthy visit and show of support.

My first flight was on Royal Jordanian Air from Tel Aviv to Amman, Jordan.  It is an incredibly short trip, maybe thirty minutes, basically up and down.  But the terrain sure changes--Jordan looks like a complete wasteland from the air, with not a speck of green in sight, a sharp contrast to the irrigated fields of Israel.  The only living thing I could see was a bunch of camels.  The scene made August in Boise look positively verdant (and with that said, I'll also confess: maybe the Jordanians are doing it right and we've got it wrong; we're starting to learn that the whole "make the desert bloom" idea may not be such a great one after all.)  

From the very start of the flight,  I got a better sense of what challenges Israel faces, living in the neighborhood she's in.  The flight magazine's "Jordan Briefing" section began by noting that Jordan is home to six million people, then described its borders as follows: "The kingdom shares boundaries with Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea, Iraq, and Palestine."  The map corroborates this description,with no mention of Israel--though here I was, flying into Jordan from Tel Aviv with a full planeload of Israelis!  

Then the flight attendant (who was very polite and respectful) handed me a free copy of the English language newspaper, The Jordan Times.  A headline declared: Israel Group Strives to Revive Memories of Lost Arab Villages.  The article described the work of a left-wing Jewish group called Zochrot (memories) which is calling for the re-population of Arab refugees into former Arab villages destroyed in the 1948 War of Independence.  This points to a major problem in the balance of power and public relations: there is no democracy in the Arab world, and therefore no dissenting voices.  But in Israel, everyone gets their say--including the far left and the far right, both of whose words are, in different ways, used to the benefit of Israel's enemies.  Last but not least, I read another article in the Jordanian Times, this time an editorial which proclaimed, Colonial Values Rule Again in Palestine and went on to describe Israel as the most vile colonial power on the face of the earth.  Whoa.  I'm not a right-winger on Israeli matters.  I recognize that Arab Israelis do not enjoy the same living standards as their Jewish counterparts.  We have a lot of important work to do. But Israeli Arabs still live better than their brothers and sisters in virtually every Arab nation.  Worst of all, this kind of vicious anti-Israel sentiment is coming from Jordan, which is, frankly, Israel's best friend in the entire Arab world.  It only gets worse from there.

That's when I arrived in Jordan myself.  The airport there is a grim place, indeed.  Lots of morose bureaucrats with guns and cigarettes.  I wasn't sure where to go, so I sucked up my manhood, walked to the Royal Jordanian information desk and asked for directions.  A middle-aged man in the Royal Jordanian uniform said, "I will show you" and took me about one hundred feet to the transit area.  Then he asked me for $20 for his efforts.  I asserted, "No!" and gave him a dollar.

It gets worse from there.  When I arrived at the gate, I heard them paging my name so I went up to the counter.  They told me that the bags I checked in Tel Aviv exceeded their weight limits by 7 kilograms--and that I therefore owed them $240 dollars (thirty-something dollars per kg).  I fought and fought and in the end, I lost and forked over the money.  What could I do?  They were not going to let me on the plane, I was sitting in a pretty hostile place. . . Needless to say, that huge baksheesh did not leave me a happy camper!

I then lamented this whole episode to a woman I met at the gate, Harriet Aswad.  She is the United Nations' communication advisor for the region, born in Atlanta but stationed in Amman for the last four years.  She empathized, noting the huge amount of graft in the country.  She also gave me her card and said that if I need help in Amman upon my return flight, I should give her a call.  Who knows--I may need to do just that.  She was a real mensch.  For all the criticism of the UN coming from the Israeli perspective, it is nice to know they have some good people working for them.

Leaving Amman, my next stop was Delhi, where I arrived after a four hour Royal Jordanian flight.  That was an adventure, too.  The Indian airport officials kept shuttling me and three Israelis, who were also bound for Kathmandu, through mazes of security and bureaucracy.  The next time I am tempted to criticize TSA and Homeland Security in the US, I will think twice--they are downright jovial compared to the airport security I met on this trip.  Indian military officials ended up taking our passports, telling us to trust them to make the proper arrangements.  What could we do?  We trusted them.  And after we sat for an hour or so, they did, indeed, return with our boarding passes.  About two minutes later, I heard an announcement over the PA system: "Calling all transit passengers for Kabul. . . all transit passengers to Kabul please report to counter three. . ."
"Lo todah--no thank you!" mumbled one of the Israelis--to which I added a hearty "Amen!"

All of this gave me a new appreciation for the nation I'd left--Israel. I've done my share of complaining about the noise and aggressiveness and difficulty of life in Israel.  I think that's because I've been comparing it to the US and Europe.  That makes sense--I came to Israel via the US and Europe.  But you would sure see Jerusalem differently if you arrived from Jordan or India.  This isn't entirely new to me; I've realized it in the past, when I returned to Israel from a week in Egypt on previous visits.  I've quoted an Israeli friend who describes Israel as a "third world country with first world stuff."  That may be true, but it sure is smooth and efficient compared to real third world countries!  Israel is still a new nation, without the history of Europe or even the US.  So it is not really fair to hold it to those standards.  By the standards of its own neighborhood, it is a spectacular success story!

Well, Rosa will surely point out that I can't really say I've been to Jordan or India.  In our family, where we like to keep track of the countries we've visited, Rosa and I have concluded that it only counts if you actually leave the airport. I didn't get out in either Amman or Delhi.  Still, it certainly was a new adventure just flying through those places.

At 8:30 am I finally arrived in Kathmandu.  Nepal is, interestingly enough, in its own time zone, 11 hours and 45 minutes later than Boise time (or 2 hours and 45 minutes later than Jerusalem.)  Apparently the forty five minute thing is because they don't want to be in the same time zone as India; it is a way of asserting their independence from the great power of the sub-continent.   My guide from Canadian Himalayan Expeditions met me and shepherded me through customs very quickly, which was really nice after my earlier difficulties.  Then he drove me to the Kathmandu Guest House, where I am staying.

And if you think Israeli driving is tough--and believe me, it is--it's nothing compared to Kathmandu.  Here there are no lanes at all.  Everyone weaves wildly, at high speeds, swerving to avoid cyclists, pedestrians, rickshaws--and cows, which walk right through downtown in this Hindu nation.  We drove along the river, where fires burned all along the banks.  My guide explained that these are ritual cremations.  Ritual cremations create a lot of smoke, which joins the haze enveloping the city of three million.

Almost everyone in town wears something resembling a surgical mask, because the air pollution is not to be believed.  Imagine the worst LA smog--and then multiply by twenty. The water is undrinkable, too; it exceeds, by a factor of ten, the acceptable levels of fecal matter as set by the World Health Organization.  And the power only runs for about eight hours a day, at different times each day.

And yet Kathmandu is a very fascinating place.  It is very colorful and very alive, and the people have been exceedingly polite to me as I've walked through the Thamel, the part of town where Westerners tend to stay.  My guest house is a kind of oasis, with beautiful and tranquil gardens.  It's also very easy to keep Pesach here, at least in Sephardi fashion, as rice is the heart of the diet and the food is very good, indeed.

I'm going to head to bed early tonight, as I got very little sleep on my travels.  Tomorrow (Sunday) morning I am meeting my guide at 8:45 am in the hotel lobby.  He is going to give me a briefing on the trek and then take me on a day-long tour of the city: royal palace, Hindu and Buddhist holy sites, interesting shops. This should be fascinating, and he is a great guy.

No pictures today, but I hope to post some at the end of the day tomorrow.  I'm having a wonderful adventure but I also miss you all.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Dew

I enjoyed a wonderful seder last night, with the girls and Laura at the home of Jerusalem friends Sarah and Jose, a modern Orthodox couple we met here in 2001.  As is traditional, we started quite late and finished around 2am.  In between, lots of great food, terrific questions and conversation, and enthusiastic participation.  Pesach is an extraordinary holy day anywhere, of course, but here it is truly special. This is  when you realize how nice it is to be Jewish in a Jewish state.  The food in the markets is all kosher l'Pesach, and everyone wishes you "Chag Sameach" at the appropriate time.  We ended the seder with a slight twist from what we know as diaspora Jews.  Our custom, as many know, is to conclude with "Next year in Jerusalem!--L'shanah ha-ba'ah b'Yerushalayim!"  So what do you say in Jerusalem?  "Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt--L'shanah ha-ba'ah b'Yerushalayim ha-b'nuyah."
This expresses a hope for the continued renewal of the city and the nation, and it is both concrete and heart-felt.  

This morning I went to shul at Har El, the same Reform synagogue I attended on Shabbat.  Once again, the congregation was very warm and welcoming.  Several other visiting Reform rabbis were also in attendance, along with some rabbinical and cantorial students.  One of those students did a stunning piece together with the cantor of the shul, singing a duet on the traditional blessing asking God for dew (rather than rainfall) and thus marking the official end of the rainy season here.  Interesting, since it rained much of the day.

Dew was also the theme of the rabbi's d'var Torah, which I once again found very moving.  She spoke of how this month, Nisan, was once the beginning of the Jewish year, until the Rabbis moved it to Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah.  Then she noted that these two new years correspond to the two primary seasons here: rainy and dry.  The fall holy days mark the beginning of the rainy season.  In the Torah, rain is always a sign of divine favor--and its corollary, drought, one of divine punishment.  In other words, the rainfall, or lack thereof, is an expression of God's judgment.  Rosh Hashanah is, therefore, the new year of judgment.  

Dew, by contrast, is constant.  It is, therefore, a sign of God's chesed, or mercy--which we receive regardless of our worthiness.  Nisan, then, and this spring season, represents a shift from judgment to mercy.  

This gave me a lot to reflect upon.  Like many of us, I tend to be too judgmental, to be too quick to condemn and criticize.  There is a place for judgment, of course.  But this season reminds me that it is crucial to learn to suspend judgment, too--to be thankful for the countless gifts of this life, which we receive undeserved.  I'm going to try to do this more faithfully this spring, to think more like the dew and less like the rain.

I finished the day with a night out to dinner.  There is only one day of chag at the beginning of Pesach here, so everything opened after sunset this evening.  And the restaurants are all kosher for Pesach--at least for those who keep Sephardi, as I do--so I really enjoyed eating out.  This will be my last big meal here; tomorrow I head to Nepal, where it will be lentils and rice for the next month.

I will probably post a piece or two from Kathmandu, then will be off the grid while I'm trekking in the Himalayas.  So a continued sweet Pesach to all, and more after I get to Nepal.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Here Comes the Sun!

I arose at 5 am, walked over to meet Tanya and Rosa and Laura, and then caught at cab to the Goldman Promenade to celebrate birkhat ha-chamah, the blessing over the sun.  This is a unique event that takes place once every twenty eight years.  At a literal level, it is nonsensical: supposedly this marks the time that the sun returns to exactly where it was in the sky, at the exact hour of its creation on the fourth day.  Of course we know the sun is much older than this, and wasn't set in the sky in a particular instant.  Nonetheless, just as we continue to use the Jewish calendar even though we know the earth is not 5769 years old, we continue to celebrate this blessing.  A big part of religious life involves learning to think in terms of metaphor; taken literally, almost the entire enterprise is ridiculous.  And this blessing is rich with metaphor.  Now, more than ever, we need to be aware of the sun as a source of energy, a gift from the Creator. As Arthur Wascow and many others have noted, we can use this blessing time to celebrate the beauty of the Holy One's creation, take note of our responsibility to it (and, sadly, recognize the damage we've done) and commit ourselves to the hard work of developing cleaner, alternative energy sources.

OK, enough philosophizing--on to the event itself.  The Goldman Promenade is on the edge of the desert, just outside the city, which arrays itself in full splendor across the valley.  We looked out over the entire old city as the sky filled with light, the first rays of rich orange sunlight gleaming off the pure gold Dome of the Rock and then illuminating the full landscape of Jerusalem stone. Hundreds of people had the same idea, so the place was mobbed.  We went to join a Jewish renewal group, which greeted the sunrise with tamborines and fiddles and wonderful chanting. There were also more traditional groups, who had set up their own mechitzas, and many individuals, wandering around, davenning, or just taking in the spectacle.  I wore my beautiful new fleece tallit, which Shira Kronenberg made for me.  It was perfect for the occasion--warm, comfortable, and decorated with the four elements,  in keeping with this unique celebration.

On the long walk home, I watched as the day began to unfold for Jerusalemites.  Some were scurrying to do their last minute Pesach shopping and cleaning.  Others were getting in cars, vans and buses to travel to family for the holy day.  And all around town, children were lighting bonfires in the streets and parking lots, in order to burn their families' remaining chametz (bread products, forbidden during Passover.)  Some things transcend all cultures: whether secular or ultra-Orthodox, boys love making fires and burning things.

Just before coming back to my guest house for a long nap (since seder will start late and go long) I stopped at the "Super-Pharm" in the bus station shopping mall.  Two young male soldiers were in line in front of me, in uniform with their M-16s hung around their necks, as is the custom here. The first was buying about five huge packs of diapers.  The second purchased three packs of condoms.  I wished them both Chag Sameach--a happy Pesach (though I suspect each will experience a different kind of happiness!)

And so with that, Chag Sameach--a joyous Pesach to all, from the City of Gold.  Next--no, make that this--year in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Like Talking to a Wall

A classic Jewish joke speaks of a new journalist assigned to her paper's Jerusalem bureau.  Upon her arrival, she takes an apartment overlooking the Kotel, the historic Western Wall. Everyday when she looks out, she sees an old bearded Jewish man praying vigorously. Certain he would be a good interview subject, the journalist goes down to the Wall and introduces herself to the  man. She asks, "You come every day to the Wall, sir, how long have you been doing that and what are you praying for?"

The old man replies, "I have come here to pray every day for 25 years. In the morning I pray for world peace and for justice for all humanity. I go home, have a cup of tea, and I come back and pray for the eradication of illness and disease from the earth. And very, very important, I pray for peace and understanding between the Israelis and Palestinians."

The journalist is very impressed. "How does it make you feel to come here every day for 25 years and pray for these wonderful things?" she asks.

The old man replies calmly, "Like I'm talking to a wall."


I thought of this joke today, as I spent my afternoon walking through the Old City, to the Wall.  The Kotel has never been my favorite place in Jerusalem.  It is, of course, known as Judaism's holiest site, for it is the only remaining section of the Temple, which was destroyed in the year 70 and still mourned over by traditional Jews. But it is, for me, a problematic place.  To begin with, while sacred to all Jews, it is completely controlled by the Orthodox, who separate men and women and raise hell if anyone prays together in mixed gender groups, even in the plaza quite a distance from the Wall itself.  And besides this, there is something about the place that feels vaguely idolatrous to me.  I've never been at ease with attaching such utter importance to stone and mortar, the work of human hands.  My ambivalence is captured perfectly in the attached image of a golden menorah that stands in a case near the Wall.  It was constructed by the Temple Institute--a group of radical messianist Jews who want to re-build the Temple and re-institute the sacrifices, as soon as possible. Never mind the fact that the Temple Mount is now home to the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque, Islamic sacred places, and tearing them down would likely start World War III.  And even if this were not the case, as a liberal Jew, I have absolutely no desire to start offering up animals again.  I find messianism powerful as an idea that moves us to work for peace and justice, but this apocalyptic version is dangerous stuff.

Nonetheless, with Pesach approaching, I went to the Wall and inserted my prayer into a crack between the ancient stones.  And despite all of my ambivalence, I was moved by the place: the power of history, the sheer number of prayers that have been uttered here, the draw it has held for so many centuries simply cannot be dismissed.

And then I walked back to my apartment, through new Jerusalem, which is every bit as much a miracle to me as the Wall.  This is history in flux, the living and growing Jewish tree of life.  It's messy and loud and passionate. . . and it is ours.  Tomorrow night we will celebrate God's bringing us out of Egypt, the journey to freedom that never really ends.  That journey echoes through the streets here, through the pharmacies and felafel stands, synagogues and shopping malls.  

The book that I am currently reading, The Geography of Bliss, notes that when someone asked Jonas Salk, inventor of polio vaccine, what the main goal of his life had been, Dr. Salk replied, "To be a good ancestor." As we prepare to celebrate our liberation, this seems like a worthy goal, indeed--one to which I aspire and need to work a whole lot harder.

Chag sameach--a joyous Pesach to all.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Bauhaus on the Beach

This morning, Rosa and I caught the bus to Tel Aviv, for a day in Israel's most secular, hip city--which is currently celebrating its one hundredth birthday.  Its name is a Hebrew version of Theodor Herzl's book that launched the Zionist movement, Altneuland.  A "tel" is an ancient archaeological site, and "aviv" is the Hebrew word for spring, thus providing a combination that evokes Herzl's "old-new land."  And with its cosmopolitan cafes and culture, Tel Aviv is certainly more along the lines of what the very secular Herzl imagined than pious Jerusalem.

We arrived at the central bus station, which is a gigantic maze.  When we finally made it out of the building, we found ourselves walking down a street populated by drunks and sex shops.  No, we were definitely not in Jerusalem any more.  After a few minutes of this, we caught a cab to the clocktower in old Jaffa and walked along the beach.  We passed the burned out shell of the Dolphinarium, a disco that was bombed by terrorists when we were here in 2001.  All that remains are graffiti-filled walls and a poignant monument listing the names of the victims in Hebrew, English, and Russian.

Tel Aviv is also known as the "White City," for its collection of over 4000 Bauhaus buildings. The modernist Bauhaus school of architecture was born in Germany, and flourished under the leadership of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe.  During the 1930s, many German-Jewish Bauhaus architects fled to Israel and designed the buildings that still define Tel Aviv.  And in 2003, noting these architectural landmarks, UNESCO declared the city a "World Cultural Heritage Site."

Unfortunately, the once-white city is now varying shades of dingy grey.  Between the salt from the sea and the exhaust and other air pollution, the city has not aged well.  Much of the urban center of Tel Aviv rivals the worst American tenements.  And frankly, as I looked at these renowned but drab and boxy buildings, I remarked to Rosa, "Bauhaus must be the German word for 'butt ugly.'"  I know, I know, form follows function, but would a little aesthetic frill here and there really hurt so much?

At any rate, once we made our peace with the decaying and unsightly architecture, we enjoyed the city.  We strolled down Sheinken Street, the epicenter of Tel Aviv cool.  This tree-lined lane is filled with stylish shops and cafes.  It is brashly secular--not a hasid in sight, lots of attractive young people dressed in form-fitting shirts and short skirts and boots.  Rosa and I enjoyed a great lunch and then went to the beach, where we read, relaxed, took photos, and played in the sand. It was a terrific way to spend the afternoon.

The last notable event of the day was our return trip.  The back of the bus was filled with Israeli teens who, basically, conducted a riot the entire way home.  They continuously screamed obscenities, poured water over one another's heads, and sprayed cheap cologne all over the bus. I expected some of the adults to intervene; I even thought the bus driver might pull over and throw them all off the bus.  They certainly deserved it.  But no one did anything, except sigh with relief when we pulled into Jerusalem's central bus station.  I was thinking about going to the zoo tomorrow but now I won't bother, since it can't possibly match the zoo on the bus.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

An Offering of Thanksgiving

As my previous posts have noted, being in Jerusalem has not always been easy for me.  But over the past two days, things have definitely been looking up, as I've been looking inward.

Yesterday, I went to Shabbat morning services at Har El, a Reform synagogue in the city's center.  It was profoundly comforting for me to be there.  The prayers were, of course, entirely familiar; even most of the tunes were old favorites (I hasten to add: in Jerusalem, no one complains, even at Reform synagogues, that the service has "too much Hebrew" as it is the lingua franca)  And after days of seeing so many ultra-Orthodox haredim, it felt really wonderful to davven at a synagogue led by the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in Jerusalem.  She exuded both calm and confidence, and made the entire Shabbat experience a pleasure.

Her sermon/drash was on the todah, the sacrifice of thanksgiving described in great detail in the portion.  She spoke about how difficult and important it was for people to bring their thanksgiving offerings--and how we still struggle to live with an attiude of thankfulness and gratitude amidst the vicissitudes of daily existence.  As I listened to her--surprisingly understanding the vast majority of her Hebrew--I was deeply moved.  I have not been nearly thankful enough, myself.  In dealing with some of the struggles of life here, I've neglected to count my many, many blessings.  I am in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life, for Pesach--the great celebration of freedom.  I am enjoying a six month sabbatical, which is a precious gift from my congregation and community.  And I am blessed with a wonderful family and such a terrific network of friends.

With all of this fresh in my mind, I so enjoyed my walk around Jerusalem today.  I found an excellent used book store and bought a richly insightful haggadah, a collection of very funny short stories by the young Israeli writer Etgar Keret, and The Geography of Bliss, a study of happiness across cultures and continents.  

And I discovered that I enjoy Jerusalem much more if, as I walk, I tune my i-pod to Bob Dylan's classic albums like Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited.  They create a kind of soundtrack for the city that is visionary and psychedelic and more than a little strange--which feels just right.  As I listen to the music, the chaos and aggression of the streets becomes surreal, dada-esque--so I can laugh and enjoy it rather than becoming enmeshed in the struggle.  And I even understood some of the lyrics that have eluded me for over forty years.  The geography of bliss, indeed.

Of Deserts, Darfur, and Dragons (Jerusalem and the Galilee)

After the heat, claustrophobia and intensity of Jerusalem, I decided to take a day out of town, traveling north to the Galilee.  I've always loved that country, with its mountains and greenery and more relaxed pace of life.  The drive was long and difficult, but it was well-worth the effort. I loved walking down the slightly decaying but still graceful main street of Nahariya, then strolling along the beach.  Tanya and Rosa both played in the sand, much as they did when they were small children here eight years ago.  

The ocean makes me feel happy.  I love many landscapes: the majesty of mountains, the clarity of deserts, the big sky of the plains.  But there is something about the beach that induces a state of relaxation.

This seems to be pretty universal.  Almost all religious fanaticism comes out of the desert--Jewish, Christian, Islamic alike.  A lot of good things emerge from the desert, too, of course: prophetic words, simplicity, stillness and silent contemplation.  Yet there is  something about the starkness of that environment that empowers fundamentalist fanatics.  It is no accident that the Jewish zealots made their last stand at Masada, in the Judean desert, that Christian monks went to the desert to don hairshirts and afflict themselves, or that today's Islamic jihadists are so pre-dominantly Saudi Arabian.  

Coastal cultures are, for the most part, tolerant--because they also tend to be a bit decadent and hedonistic.  People on the beach are generally too busy having a good, relaxing time to bother with persecuting others.  This is, of course, a vast oversimplification.   Plenty of coastal cultures have tolerated slavery and other evils.  But religious zealotry is not usually among their sins.   Jerusalem is, above all, a holy place, and holiness is both wonderful and, at times, a bit oppressive, too.  It was nice to have a day away from it.

And I also enjoyed a respite from Jerusalem within Jerusalem itself.  I went with Laura and Rosa to see Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, at Cinematheque, Jerusalem's art film theater.  He performed a short concert for an audience of mostly Americans and Brits and some younger Israelis, too.  I've never been a huge fan of PP&M; I tend to prefer my folk music with a more biting edge, epitomized by my musical hero, Bob Dylan.  But living in a city where there is so much edge, every moment, Peter Yarrow's almost child-like naivete and optimism came as a very welcome relief.  In a city that is cynical and hardened and war-weary, his hope--undimmed, really, since the '60s--is profoundly counter-cultural and refreshing.  He invited all the kids in the audience to come up and sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" with him--and, amazingly enough, these Israeli children knew all the words by heart (see film clip below.)  He ended the show with "I Ain't Gonna Study War No More," which is, of course, taken from the book of Isaiah, and thus echoes with eternity in this city.

And I want to end this entry on a similar note of promise and hope.  One of my teachers once told me that it is no virtue to be righteous when you have no power.  Over the course of Jewish history, we have often been martyrs and victims--but this is not a mark of greatness.  The true test of morality lies with having power--and using it justly.  That is why Israel is such a critical experiment in Jewish history.  For the first time in two thousand years, we have political power. And while we have not been perfect, God knows, I believe that for the most part, under difficult circumstances, we have acquitted ourselves rather well.

I see this every morning, as the cook at the bed and breakfast where I am staying is a Muslim refugee from Darfur.  While much of the world--including the Islamic world--has taken note of the situation in the Sudan, Israel has taken concrete action, absorbing hundreds of Sudanese refugees, who flee through Egypt and are making new lives for themselves here.   As a Jewish nation still full of Holocaust survivors and their families, Israel is accutely aware of the problem of genocide and dedicated to doing its part to make "never again" a reality for gentiles as well as Jews.  

This nation is, like every nation, flawed, but it still strives much harder than just about any other to be a light to the rest of the world--even a world that so frequently and unfairly scorns its efforts.

Leviathan in Jerusalem

Jewish tradition teaches that God created ten measures of beauty, then gave nine to Jerusalem and one to the rest of the world.  While this is clearly a bit of hyperbole (after all, the Grand Canyon is a pretty nice piece of work) there is also much truth to it: Jerusalem is a magnificently beautiful place.  The buildings are all made of Jerusalem stone, which changes color with the changing light and seasons, and makes the entire city glow with an almost heavenly radiance. And there is intense beauty in the history, too--in knowing that wherever you walk here, you follow in the footsteps of prophets and sages, of holy men and women.

There is also a unique beauty to being a Jew here.  Living in the diaspora, we get accustomed to being a minority, to having a calendar and culture that are not always in sync with those of our neighbors.  Arriving here nine days before Pesach, one experiences a different world.  Kosher for Passover products fill the markets and they are not priced exorbitantly.  And wherever you go, people wish you "Chag Sameach--a joyous holy day!"  This feels almost miraculous after so many years of attending public school Christmas concerts and Easter egg hunts.

And yet, for all of its beauty and holiness, this is also a deeply troubled and divided city. Everyone knows about the division between Jews and Arabs, of course.  When the political right here talks about "one Jerusalem," refusing to negotiate the status of the city, they are living a lie, because whatever the official line, in practice, this is already two cities.  East Jerusalem is entirely Arab and the Jews just don't go there.  Sovereignty is, by and large, a technicality.

But the divide that is more shocking to me is the one between the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, and everyone else.  When I lived here twenty-five years ago, the "black hats" dwelt mainly in Mea She'arim, an ultra-Orthodox quarter.  But in the intervening time, their population has boomed and the city is now more and more the domain of religious separatists.  The demographics are simple: the hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox have eight, ten, twelve children, so the math isn't hard to figure out.   Meanwhile, the secular and even modern Orthodox continue to flee to the rest of Israel.

And the haredim are, by and large, very poor.  Many of the men don't work, prefering to study Torah full time.  They also do not serve in the military.  As a result, the city's tax base is rapidly deteriorating.  This is very evident as one walks down the main streets.  The infrastructure is collapsing and the buildings are increasingly dilapidated.  The city is building a light rail system down Rechov Yaffo, the main street, hoping that this will stimulate urban renewal.  But many here suspect it will have the opposite effect, enabling the last secularists to move to the suburbs and commute into town for work, then return to their homes far outside the city limits for the night.    

In short, Jerusalem is on a trajectory to become a third world city.

There are, of course, still bastions of the old Jerusalem that I knew.  Neighborhoods in the southern part of town--Rechavia, Talbiyeh, Bakaa, the German Colony--still offer the kind of sophisticated European atmosphere that Theodore Herzl envisioned in his pioneering Zionist work, Altneuland (The Old-New Land.)  In those places, one finds cafes, restaurants, and religious moderates and secularists from America and Western Europe.  But these worlds are fading in Jerusalem. There is a real danger that Israel could become, de facto, two nations: a theocracy with its capital in Jerusalem and a secular state centered around Tel Aviv.

There are people who are working hard to bridge this divide.  David Hartman runs an institute devoted to Jewish pluralism.  I'll be studying there later this summer.  But he certainly has his work cut out for him.

One thing that hasn't changed much, though, is the reality that life here, while rich and fascinating, is also difficult.  It is an obvious truth that Israel finds herself in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by nations that long for her destruction.  But that tension is exacerbated by a kind of survival of the fittest mentality that exists among Jewish Israelis.  There is a lot of pushing and shoving and shouting and just generally aggressive behavior.  I hasten to add that there are many, many wonderfully polite and considerate Israelis, but the culture itself does not put much value on the fineries of etiquette.  There is a kind of coarseness to life that wears me down.  This is also manifest in the driving habits which are, to put it mildly, murderous.  The roads here are filled with  carnage.  One day I rented a car and drove to the Galilee; along the way, I witnessed three serious accidents and many more near misses.  

I thought of all of this while listening to a podcast of Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac." Keillor noted the birthday of Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher whose magnum opus, Leviathan, notoriously described the human condition as "a war of everyone against everyone."  That captures the nature of street-life here.  I have enough experience living in Israel to know that in their homes and with their friends, Israelis are among the most generous and big-hearted people on earth.  But daily interactions really do have that Darwinian feel.

Interestingly enough, Hobbes's title, Leviathan, is also signficant in Jewish life.  Legend has it that when the messiah comes, we will all eat the meat of the leviathan, the mythical beast of the sea.  Indeed, hasidim sing songs fervantly longing for the moshiach and exulting the virtues of the subsequent feast of leviathan fillets.

As for me, I'm wary of messianic fervor.  Focusing one's hopes on a divinely-sent savior distracts us from the every day work of repairing the world.  I believe, like most liberal Jews, that the messiah is a metaphor, the symbol of an age that is more an ideal to work towards than a physical reality.  

And if I'm wrong, and I don't get invited to the feast of leviathan, well--I'll gladly take a pass as a vegetarian.