Sunday, May 31, 2009

Blintzes and STorah-Telling

What a busy holy day weekend this has been!

I spent Thursday afternoon in Arab East Jerusalem with my old rabbinical school classmate, Arik Asherman, who is the Israeli director of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization that works to support the civil liberties of both Jews and Palestinians.  Arik is a courageous leader.  I don't always agree with his political stands, but I never cease to admire his bravery and his commitment to justice.  Last week, he was hit by a rock thrown by a West Bank settler, as he was helping to protect a group of local Arabs plowing their fields in the face of resistance from some of the fanatical right-wing settlers.

We spent a few hours in parts of the city that Jews seldom visit.  When Israeli politicians speak of "one Jerusalem, undivided" they are voicing a pipe dream.   I don't have any solutions to the political quandry of Jerusalem, and I am not advocating its division.  Yet practically-speaking, this is indisputably a deeply divided place.  

We spent time talking with some Arab residents who are living in tents, having been evicted from their homes by right-wing settlers, supported by the Netanyahu government.  The settlers' claims to these homes are based on their assertion that prior to 1910, this had been Jewishly-owned land.  This is currently being disputed in court, but of course it is a very bad precedent; after all, there are certainly plenty of Jews living on land that was in Arab hands prior to 1910, and we surely don't want to say that gives the Arabs the right to throw those Jews out of their houses.  

The most prominent of these evictee-protesters is a woman in her sixties, whose husband died of a heart attack just two weeks after they lost their home.  Arik translated back and forth between Hebrew and Arabic.  It was a fascinating, and very sad discussion.   We don't want to believe that Israeli is capable of such unjust actions.  I am a staunch Zionist who adamantly rejects the anti-Israel rhetoric coming from the media and most of the world, and I am well-aware that these matters are often quite complex.  Yet I simply cannot see anything that justifies leaving a sick and elderly Arab couple homeless so that a few ultra-Orthodox settlers can live in Arab East Jerusalem for a pittance.  This is both immoral and, politically, idiotic.  My love for Israel does not make me uncritical.  Just as I believe that American patriotism compels me to speak out when I see the United States acting unjustly, so, too, should Israelis and other Jews lovingly criticize Israel when it fails to live up to its own high ideals, grounded in our Jewish tradition.  We are not Hamas or Hezbollah.  We are a fundamentally good and decent nation here, which has done many remarkable things.  But we are not perfect, and should strive to do better than we have done in such cases in East Jerusalem.

I returned home in time to celebrate the beginning of Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah.  My in-laws joined with Janet and Jonah and Rachel and me for a delicious holiday dinner of blintzes and ice cream, as dairy food is the traditional fare for this festival.  

On Shavuot  morning, we all went off to Congregation Kol Haneshama, the Reform synagogue here in my neighborhood of Bakaa.   It is about a seven minute walk from our apartment; one of the amazing things about Jerusalem is that you pretty much always have five or more synagogues within a ten minute walk!

The service was wonderful.  Besides the usual holy day liturgy--Hallel psalms, reading of the book of Ruth, special prayers and tunes--the morning featured "STorah-telling," which is a dynamic, inspiring and creative presentation that truly brings the Torah portion to life for the community.   In the middle of the traditional Torah reading, members of the community used drama, dance, music and dialogue to engage the congregation in the words of the portion.  The leitmotif of the program was: "We were all at Sinai!"  The STorah-telling asked us all to reflect on our own memories of receiving Torah.   Jewish tradition teaches that we each heard God's voice according to our own power, in our own unique way.   I left shul feeling deeply connected, over space and time, to Torah and the Jewish people.

Shavuot was followed by Shabbat, so I was back at Kol Haneshama for kabbalat Shabbat services in the evening.  In between, we had naps and lunch, and a very nice visit with Rabbi Asherman and his wife, Rabbi Einat Ramon, who directs the Israeli rabbinical program for the Conservative (Masorti) movement here in Jerusalem.    Then, on Shabbat afternoon, Janet and I attended a kind of Kaufman family reunion at the apartment that my in-laws are renting, around the block from us.  I got to meet many of Janet's cousins and great-aunts and uncles, and we all had a great time, continuing to feast on dairy delights and share conversation about the joys and struggles that mark life here in the Jewish state.

Tanya finishes her program this evening and will be with us for the next few days before heading off to visit friends in Nes Tziyonna (near Tel Aviv) and then back to Boise on June 9.  It will be good to have her with us.

Shavua tov--a good and peaceful week to all.

Zionism and the New Jews

In response to my last post, one of my friends asked a very good question:

"As you said in your blog, Jerusalem (and in truth, much of Israel) is inhabited by people who are more "assertive" than we might like.  The stories and jokes about that are legion.  And my own experiences in Israel suggest that they are not exaggerations.  I've wondered why.  Is it climate, history, tradition, intellectual fervor misdirected, or something else all together?  Your ideas?"

Well, I'm hardly an expert, but let me try to offer my opinion here. 

To begin with, a caveat:  this is a broad generalization that I have made.  Many individual Israelis are relaxed, courteous, and gracious.  Indeed, I have often found people to be extraordinarily generous.  Numerous times when I have been short money or exact change, local shopkeepers have just said, "Pay me later."  I've had folks open their houses--and hearts--to me in remarkable displays of hospitality.  

And it is also the case that "aggressiveness" is relative to culture.  To many Asians, Americans are incredibly aggressive.  So a lot is just what you are accustomed to experiencing.

With all that said, I do have a few thoughts on why Israeli culture tends to be, from my vantage point, a bit rough around the edges in some ways.

Perhaps there is a regional aspect to this.  Israeli culture is similar to many other Mediterranean societies: Greece, Italy, and other Arab countries in the region.  All tend to be rather direct, assertive, a bit on the "macho" side, at least on surface level.

And maybe Jewish intellectual tradition is a part of it, too.  As any student of Talmud knows, we have always been an argumentative people.  Maybe we have simply transferred some of our intellectual and textual traditions to daily life.

But I believe the most important factor is Jewish history.  Israel was established, in many ways, as a kind of rejection of diaspora values.  The early Zionists wanted to create a society that was entirely different from the one they left behind in Europe.  This was even truer after the Holocaust.  Above all,  the Israeli enterprise was about re-making Jews from history's constant "victims" into powerful masters of our own destiny.  I believe that one by-product of this is a tendency towards aggressiveness in daily life.  The worst thing one can be here is a "sucker," someone who is taken advantage of by others.  That is the way of the Jewish past, which Israelis adamantly reject.  As a result, everyone wants to be on top, leading to a bit of a Darwinian society.

My two cents.  Let me know what you think, either agreeing or disagreeing.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Desert Dreams and Supermarket Sieges

We’re back in Jerusalem after a week-long tour of southern Israel.  Summer is approaching and we figured it would be good to travel to the Negev before the temperatures became unbearably hot there, so we rented a tiny Hyundai hatchback and set out for the desert.

We spent two nights in Mitzpe Ramon.  This is Israel’s answer to MoabUtah—a desert town that is trying very hard to become a mecca for eco-tourists, mountain bikers, bird watchers and Jewish New-Agers.  Mostly, it has succeeded.  Mitzpe Ramon sits, literally, on the rim of the Maktesh Ramon, a very large crater/canyon with interesting rock formations and assorted geological oddities.  Rachel and Jonah especially enjoyed finding frogs in a small pond and chasing after the ibex, an exotic and beautiful species of mountain goat that populates the region.  And we all savored the extraordinary Israeli breakfast at the Ramon Inn, which featured everything from olives to omelets and scores of savory Middle Eastern treats.  The desert sky at night was dazzling and the weather was surprisingly cool, with a fair breeze moderating the brilliant sun.

From Mitzpe Ramon, we made our way to Lotan, a Reform kibbutz in the Arava desert plain. We spent three days with the community there, learning, sharing and celebrating together.  I led a workshop on Judaism and environmental ethics, which was challenging because, at our hosts’ request, I taught in Hebrew, and my conversational Hebrew is rusty at best. Indeed, on ecological matters, I learned much more than I taught.  Lotan is on the cutting edge of sustainable living, with mud and straw-bale housing, composting toilets, and specially-designed wetlands for water purification.  There are wonderful organic gardens, groves of date palms, and lovingly-tended herds of goats and cattle.  And the community is young and energetic, a vibrant collective living in harmony with the earth, according to progressive Jewish values.  I was very pleased to spend time with Leah Benamy, who was at rabbinical school with me at the HebrewUnion College in Cincinnati, and has lived with her family at Lotan for the past thirteen years. Leah’s daughter, Naamah, and Rachel quickly became fast friends.  When we weren’t teaching or touring, we spent a lot of time at the pool, as the mid-day temperatures at Lotan easily exceed 100 degrees.

We finished our tour with a night in Eilat, the southernmost place in Israel, on the shore of theRed Sea.  The coral reef there is fabulous; we snorkeled and swam and Rachel and I did a scuba dive at the Dolphin Beach.  It was amazing to swim with dolphins—and sea turtles and eels and magnificent Technicolor tropical fish.  Surfacing and walking back up to the shore was a bit like waking from a dream.

Now that we are back in Jerusalem, the Shavuot holiday is soon approaching, and we are looking forward to delicious dairy foods and Torah study.  With that said, I’ll confess that I am not having the easiest time of it in the holy city.  The pace of life here feels frantic and, at times, with the ultra-religiously charged air, a bit oppressive to me.  And I am not really well-suited to Israeli culture, which is, to say the least, aggressive.  Going to the supermarket is like girding for battle.  Daily existence here reminds me of Thomas Hobbes’ description of the state of nature in his Leviathan: “a war of all against all.”  Little interactions wear me down.  I love being in a Jewish state, but I wish there was a little more emphasis on the niceties and small graces that make social interactions easier and more pleasant.  Of course I know very well that others find the constant give-and-take exhilarating; I’m just not wired that way.  So I must find my own path and develop strategies to stay calm and comfortable in a chaotic atmosphere.

May this Shavuot festival, z’man matan torateynu, the time of the giving of the Torah, bring renewal, peace, and blessing to us all.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Around Annapurna

Now that I am back in Jerusalem, reflecting on my trek, it is hard to know where to begin.  I lived and learned so much in my three weeks around Annapurna.  Accompanied by my guide and porter, I passed through such a vast array of landscapes and cultures!  We began in semi-tropical rice paddies, climbed to nearly 18,000 feet, crossed the frigid Thorung La pass in heavy layers of down, descended to the arid Tibetan plateau, and finished in rhododendron jungles near the lakeside city of Pokhara.  Along the way, we toured ancient Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries, ate dal bhat (lentils and rice) twice a day, and met countless Nepalese villagers, young and old, who invariably welcomed us with a smile and their traditional greeting, “Namaste.”  I lived with animals—dogs, mules, yak, water buffalo, goats and cows and roosters and hens—and watched people plowing with yoked oxen and hand-cast iron blades, exactly as they would have two thousand years ago.  I marveled at monks painting mandalas, women weaving scarves, last light lingering as alpenglow on eight thousand meter peaks.  I reflected on the way the Nepalese encounter, constantly, so many of the things that we, westerners, work so hard to deny or hide away: excrement, blood, pain, the beauty of imperfection, and, inevitably, death.   I have walked along two rivers, the clear Marsyandi and the black Kali Gandaki, which lies at the bottom of the world’s deepest gorge, between the great peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna.   Fearfully at first, and then with greater confidence, I crossed long and narrow suspension bridges festooned with prayer flags casting into the swirling winds the sacred Tibetan words om mane padme om—hail to the jewel in the lotus.. I formed close connections with other trekkers, from all over the world, and fulfilled a lifelong dream of viewing the Himalayas, which were magnificent, far surpassing even my highest expectation.


I also travelled on a kind of parallel inward journey.  Henry James noted, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” I hope that I finished the trek a little different from the person who began it, with a stronger sense of awe and gratitude.  Over the long days on the trail, despite—or maybe because of—the intensity of the beauty around me, I sometimes struggled with loneliness and homesickness; during those moments, I sought to make a mental shift, to view my solitude as a blessing and opportunity for growth rather than a trial to be endured.  I missed my family and friends constantly, but tried do my own work on my relationships with loved ones as I journeyed on in their absence.  The Talmud teaches: “M’shaneh makom, m’shaneh mazal—to change your place is to change your fate.”  Halfway around the world from my usual “place,” I recognized the power of this teaching.


I hope to write a book on my time here, and it will take me quite awhile just to wrap my mind around the incredible things, times, people, and places that I experienced.  For now, then, falling back on the old maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words, see the link below for a bunch of photos from my trek.  Shalom, Namaste and Enjoy!


Sunday, May 10, 2009

Kathmandu Blues

Well, after almost a month away, I have a lot of catching up to do.  I experienced, in a way, a lifetime in three weeks of trekking.  Way too much to cover in a post or two.  So for now, I can only say that I will try to write about that experience in pieces over the next few weeks.  The perspective will, I think, help.

At the moment, I'm in Kathmandu.  I leave for Jerusalem tonight, so my next post will be from back in Israel.  Much more to follow.  I miss all of my friends and family back home and am wishing you all well!