Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jerusalem Pride

After a relaxing afternoon at the beach in Tel Aviv with the kids yesterday, today we had an active time out in Jerusalem.

We began with a trip to the Museum on the Seam, a cutting edge gallery on the border between Jewish West Jerusalem and Arab East Jerusalem. Their mission is to exhibit art that generates conversation and contemplation about the roots of conflict, and promotes peace.

We arrived there after walking through the Christian and Moslem quarters of the Old City. We strolled along the Via Dolorosa, past the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and then squeezed through the very crowded alley ways of the shuk (market) to the Damascus Gate. We stopped several times for water and fresh-squeezed orange juice, as it was almost one hundred degrees outside, and the sun was blazing.

The museum's current exhibit is called Man/Nature. It has a strong ecological focus, with many pieces portraying the damage that we, human beings, have caused to the wider environment. I am not much of a fan of either abstract or political art, so it was not exactly my cup of tea. Nonetheless, there were some thoughtful and beautiful pieces, and the museum itself is an architectural gem.

After a leisurely lunch at an Arab restaurant in East Jerusalem, we took a cab back to our apartment, sitting in traffic for almost an hour. As it turned out, most of our corner of the city was barricaded off for Jerusalem's Gay Pride parade.

So when we finally made it home, I hopped on my bike and rode over to check out the festivities. I am very proud of the fact that my synagogue, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel, has always been well-represented in Boise's annual Pride parade, so I was curious to see who would be here in Jerusalem. Of course, the event is quite controversial in this holy city. While hip and secular Tel Aviv's Gay Pride parade attracts tens of thousands, without incident, here in the holy city of Jerusalem, with its large ultra-Orthodox population, protests abound. In fact, a recent poll showed that only 25% of local residents support this parade. This can't be an easy place to be gay. While openly gay and lesbian citizens do serve in the army here (which is mandatory for everyone except, ironically, the same ultra-Orthodox who are so anti-gay), in most ways, Israel lags way behind America on this issue. And Jerusalem lags way behind the rest of Israel--though, I hasten to add, it is light years ahead of all of its neighboring Islamic Arab states, where gays and lesbians are still frequently thrown in jail for their sexual orientation.

None of this is surprising; there are always protesters at Boise's Pride parade, too. The part that is so striking to me is that, because this is Israel, here the protesters (as well as the demonstrators) are all Jews. As an American, I am accustomed to Jews being on the liberal side, marching in the parade, with the anti-gay protesters coming from the Christian right. But here the protesters are all from the Jewish right--the same ultra-Orthodox fanatics who are also protesting the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat here in Jerusalem. Indeed, a few years ago, three participants in the Pride parade were stabbed by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who apparently take their understanding of Torah as opposing homosexuality much more seriously than that "minor" commandment, Do not murder.

At any rate, I enjoyed being a part of this historic parade, which also marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall resistance that began the modern gay rights movement. Here are a few observations from the experience:

1. Not surprisingly, there was a high percentage of English speakers. Even the Israelis here are clearly inspired by the American gay rights movement.

2. The crowd was predominantly young--with many heterosexuals participating. I have always believed that the end result of the battle for gay rights is already determined, in favor of full equality. It is just a matter of time. This is a hot button issue for people over forty. For younger people, it is a non-issue. It is now pretty much OK to be gay in high school--not just in San Francisco, but in Boise, Idaho. I was buoyed to see the turnout of young gay Jews here in Jerusalem--and their straight supporters.

3. The dress for the occasion was rather subdued: very few glittery costumes or drag queens. Apparently, there is a lot more flamboyance at the Tel Aviv pride event. But that's the difference between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv on all matters, not just sexuality. Tel Aviv is boisterous, exuberant, proudly secular. Jerusalem is somber, intense, and sacred.

4. Sadly, I saw very few religious people at the event. In America, many religious organizations march at Pride events--liberal synagogues as well as most of the mainstream Protestant churches, with a coterie of Buddhists, New Agers, etc. Here, the crowd was overwhelmingly secular. This, too, is not surprising, given the nature of religious life in Israel: people tend to be either Orthodox or secular, with not much in between. But there was one exception: a large contingent from Jerusalem's small but significant Reform community, marching together in solidarity. I was very proud of my Reform brothers and sisters here. In Israel, as in America, we are in the vanguard when it comes to supporting gay rights--as a religious expression of our Jewish values. Indeed, I heard many within that contingent wishing one another "Chag Sameach," thus applying the traditional holiday greeting for Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot to this new holiday, Gay Pride Day.

5. Given the size of the crowd and the limited space of the venue, I would have expected a lot of aggressive pushing and shoving. That didn't happen. So I'd have to say, based on one very short experience, gay and lesbian Israelis and their supporters seem to be significantly more polite than a random Israeli crowd--at least when they are celebrating justice together.

6. There were lots of flags, balloons, posters and tee-shirts, with some very clever and inspiring messages. See my pictures, above, for a sample. Here's a translation of the words on the tee-shirts and posters: Jerusalem is also mine! And Education for Change And my personal favorite, on the red shirt: Blessed is the One who made me as I am, which is a play on the traditional Orthodox formulation of the morning blessings in which men thank God for making them men and women thank God for making them "according to his will."

Shabbat shalom to all! And happy birthday to Rosa, who is 15 today (see her Facebook page for her own picture with drag queens at Boise's Pride Parade last weekend)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Monday at the Zoo

The last time I was at the Jerusalem Zoo, eight years ago, it was during the Pesach holiday, and the place was utterly mobbed by large families of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Today, it was a whole lot quieter.

It's a beautiful zoo, built into the side of a steeply-sloped part of the Judean Hills, on the outskirts of town. While it is not huge, it is spacious, meticulously-manicured, and well-designed. One gets the feeling that the animals are well-cared for here, and they are not confined to small cages as they are, sadly, in so many zoos.

And one of the best parts is that there is a focus on animals of the Hebrew Bible. In addition to the usual information about range, habitat, life expectancy, etc, the informational signage also includes verses from Scriptures that mention the animal on display. It is fascinating to be in Jerusalem, looking at the hippos in the African savannah exhibit, and encounter a verse about these enormous beasts from the book of Job. One realizes here, as in so many places in this city and nation, that Torah is very much a part of every day life, with echoes of the past constantly exerting influence over the present and future. As William Faulkner said of the American South, all the more so here: "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

Not even at the zoo.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

One Hundred Blessings

In the Talmud, one of our greatest sages, Rabbi Meir, teaches that a person should strive to say one hundred blessings every day.

This is no mean feat. Given the busy nature of our lives, uttering one hundred blessings daily would involve a lot of stopping to smell the roses. It would also entail appreciating many things that we tend to take for granted. That is, of course, exactly the point. We are surrounded by miracles. We should, by all rights, sing God’s praises each day the sun rises and sets, every time we pass a flower or fruit tree or, for that matter, another human being made in God’s image. But our sense of wonder is dulled by routine. As the Baal Shem Tov taught, “Just as a single hand, placed before our eyes, can hide the highest mountain, so, too, can daily life inure us to God’s miracles.”

By contrast, our discomforts and irritations always seem to remain fresh. We remember every time we are shunned, shoved, or slighted. We complain much more than we praise.

I am very guilty of this error. I have frequently noted the challenges I have faced living in Jerusalem. I’ve complained about the aggressiveness of life here, the noise, the macho, the arrogance, the lack of respect for personal space. All of these things make life here rather difficult for me. But I have been terribly negligent when it comes to expressing my gratitude for the hundreds of blessings that I have experienced here in the Holy City. And so, from here on, following a good piece of advice I received from my wife, I am going to try to start each blog entry with one small thing I’ve experienced that I am thankful for. I am not going to focus on huge, spectacular places and events, though Jerusalem has plenty of those; I am, instead, going to try to cast a spotlight on ordinary experiences of holiness—acts and occurrences, as it were, of grace.

For those who are probably now wondering, I haven’t bought a pair of rose-colored glasses. I will still speak, on occasion about the many aspects of Israeli life that trouble me. But following Rabbi Meir, I hope to spend more time counting my blessings than criticizing and complaining about what bothers me.

So. . . to begin, for today: as I walked past a local bus stop, I paused to read a flyer hanging on one of the walls. It was a death notice, announcing the passing of Fortuna Drei, a long-time resident of the Bakaa neighborhood. I did not know her—as I have not known anyone whose name appeared on one of these notices, which are posted nearly every day. But as I read it, I thought to myself: “What a wonderful thing, that every time someone in the neighborhood dies, news of their death is broadcast this way on every street corner.” While Jerusalem is a very large city, it remains a kind of huge extended family. Like most families, it is a little dysfunctional. Its members argue and act up and sometimes stop talking to one another. But beneath all of this, there is a kind of love. One person’s death affects everyone. In a cosmic sense, when a Jerusalemite is born, everyone celebrates. And when a long-time resident dies, everyone mourns.

That is what it means to live in community, as we do in Jerusalem--or in Boise, Idaho. It can be difficult, irritating, painful. But it is also beautiful and, above all, deeply human. Or divine. Or better yet, where the human meets the divine.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Whose Owns the Rambam?

Almost three months ago, I was in Cordoba, Spain, with Rosa. While we were there, we visited the birthplace of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, aka Rambam (see my post of March 28) He was the greatest Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages and, perhaps, the most brilliant Jewish thinker of all time. Of him it is said, "From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses."

So it was fitting then, to come full circle and visit his tomb in Tiberius. OK, many scholars do not think this is really his tomb (a common phenomenon--King David has at least three tombs here), but for many centuries it has been venerated as such, and it is clearly now associated with him, as a memorial.

When Maimonides was a young boy, his family fled Spain, after a group of Islamic fanatics displaced the more moderate and tolerant Islamic rulers who presided over the Golden Age on the Iberian Penninsula. They eventually settled in Egypt, where Maimonides lived and died and may have actually been buried. He spent most of his life in Fostat, where he was physician to the Sultan as well as leader of the Jewish community.

Maimonides wrote tomes of scholarly works, but is best known for two: the Guide for the Perplexed and the Mishnah Torah. The latter was the first code of Jewish law. In it, Maimonides condensed and systematized all of the rulings of the Talmud. His stated purpose was to allow educated Jews more time to study secular matters such as astronomy, metaphysics, and other sciences of the day.

In his philosophical masterpiece, the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides begins with a letter to one of his students, which explains the aim of the book. The student's problem is this: he had a good traditional Jewish education, then began secular studies--which put him into a quandry, since the secular science seemed to contradict the teachings of the Torah. This left the student with three choices. He could either assert the truth of Torah and reject secular learning, accept the science and abandon the Torah, or compartmentalize his learning.

But none of these is acceptable to Maimonides, for whom there is only one Truth. He offers a fourth way, which is to constantly re-interpret Torah in light of the changing wisdom of the day. In his case, this meant reconciling Torah with the neo-Aristotelian philosophy of the Middle Ages, as passed down by his Islamic theologian peers. That philosophy is now terribly outdated, but the Maimonidean premise--that Torah must be re-interpreted to jibe with the advancing secular wisdom and science of the day--remains a bedrock principle of a liberal approach to Judaism.

And after my day in Tzefat, I was really, really happy to be making a pilgrimage to a place honoring the Rambam. I am much more of a rationalist than I am a mystic; Maimonidean philosophy is much more my cup of tea than kabbalah. I am descended from Litvaks, who carried on the rationalist approach, opposing the hasidim and their ectastic mysticism, and though I am not a purist in my rationalism, I am clearly more inclined towards this avenue of Jewish practice.

But I was very disturbed by what has been done to the tomb of the Rambam. It has, in short-- like almost every Jewishly significant place in this country--been completely taken over by the ultra-Orthodox. As a result, there is now a mechitzah, separating men and women, running literally over the center of Maimonides' tomb. This is the height of fanatical absurdity, errecting mechitzahs over gravestones! And Maimonides, who was a radical iconoclast (the traditionalists burned his books at the time they came out) would have been appalled to see his memorial controlled by those whose practice is antithetical to everything he stood for.

Well, moving on, I paid my respects and then we drove back to Jerusalem--on highway 90, which runs right through the center of the West Bank. What a different place this is from Israel proper. It is dry, desolate, and direly poor. We could see large Arab villages, and also Jewish settlements on mountaintops. These settlements are doomed; Israel will undoubtedly surrender this territory, as it is already outside of their security fence which will, for better or worse, largely define the borders of an eventual peace agreement.

And I am with those who would return this land to the Arabs, though not because I think they deserve it. They have repeatedly rejected proposals that would give them a just and fair peace. As one Israeli sage put it, "The Palestinian leaders never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

So why withdraw from the West Bank? Yesterday, I saw a bumper sticker that captures my feelings exactly. It said, "Out of the Territories--L'ma-an Yisrael--For the Sake of Israel." NOT for the sake of the Arabs, who have done nothing to merit getting this land. But for our own sake, because being an occupying power eats at the core of Israel's Jewish conscience. We cannot rule over hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and remain a democratic Jewish state. Either we would cease to be democratic or, giving them full rights (and given their high birthrate), would cease to be Jewish. Neither is acceptable.

So I hope we will continue to pursue peace, for our sake, even though we do not have very good partners in the process.

And now it is good to be back in Jerusalem, which is settling into the peace that covers it once a week on Shabbat. Shabbat shalom to all.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Reviving the Dead

Today we drove to Tel Dan, at the northern border with Lebanon, in the Golan region. This is a beautiful place, and also of great importance, as it is the headwaters of the Jordan river. Contrary to the old spiritual, the Jordan is neither deep nor wide; in Idaho, we would call it a creek or a stream. Yet it is a significant place in biblical lore, and vital to the land of Israel today as well, for it is the primary source of fresh water in the nation, feeding the Sea of Galilee.

Water is a signficant strategic asset in this region, and it is in short supply. Israel has been through a long drought and the Sea of Galilee is significantly depleted. And in any talk of peace settlements, water is always major point of discussion. Prior to 1967, the Golan was in Syrian hands, and the Syrians tried to divert the mountain runoff away from Israel. As a result, for this reason, and others, most Israelis are very wary of proposals to return the Golan to Syria. Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, after the Six Day War, the Golan was annexed by the state of Israel, and one frequently sees bumper stickers that read, "Ha-Am Im Ha-Golan--the Land of Israel, with the Golan."

I did a week-long archaeological dig at Tel Dan when I was a first year rabbinical student in 1983, and the place has certainly changed in the intevening quarter century. It is now quite a tourist attraction, with handicapped accessible paths along the verdant streams and a restaurant and bookstore. But it maintains its loveliness.

The region of Dan is also mentioned in the Torah as the northern boundary of ancient Israel. God shows Moses the land stretching "from Dan (in the north) to Be'er Sheva (in the south)." So having been to Eilat a month or so ago, we can now claim to have traversed the entire land during our stay here. That's not such a challenge, as it is maybe a quarter the size of Idaho. At one point, just north of Tel Aviv, it is only twelve miles wide, which also points to some of the security challenges. It seems so crazy: the Arabs have so much land, and we ask for such a small slice of the pie--and they want to begrudge us even that little piece.

On the bright side, two days after I took it for a swim in the Sea of Galilee, my cell phone is working again. Talmud says that upon seeing a friend one hasn't seen in a month, one praised God "for resurrecting the dead." This is a nice bit of technological resurrection, for which I am grateful.

Home to Jerusalem for Shabbat tomorrow night. It has been a great trip north. Shabbat shalom to all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

North to the Galilee

We are spending this week away from Jerusalem, catching our breath and enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures in the north.

For our first few days, we stayed in Zichron Ya'akov, with Janet's cousins, Florence and Emile. Zichron is a beautiful old city high on a hill above the Mediterranean coast. It was settled by early Zionist pioneers, with money and assitance from the Rothschild family, who helped to plant vinyards in the region. While in Zichron, we walked and played and rested. It was especially good to be in a spacious house after so many weeks in a rather cramped apartment.

We are now in Amirim, which is high in the Upper Galilee. Amirim is a moshav, a community/village, where all the residents are vegetarian. The lifestyles, and the landscape, are reminiscent of northern California. Our cabin is absolutely luxurious, with two hot tubs, flat screen television, and splendid flora. We have avocado, pomegranate and fig trees just outside, with fruit ripe for the picking. And the flowers are astounding: brilliant colors and such fragrance perfuming the air. It is a truly relaxing place.

Tuesday afternoon, we drove down to the Sea of Galilee. The water level is very low, as there has been a prolonged drought and the Kinneret (Galilee) is the primary source of fresh water for the country. But it was still beautiful. We watched a bunch of people para-sailing. It was an ideal day for that, as the wind was blowing fiercely. This also meant a lot of waves. Rachel enjoyed jumping up and down in those waves. I had a great swim, too. Unfortunately, I left my phone in my bathing suit pocket the entire time, so I now have a very soaked cell phone. Since this is a land of marvels and miracles, maybe it will resurrect itself. If not, I'm out a phone for the next month or so.

On Wednesday, we travelled to Tzefat/Safed, home of Jewish mysticism. This city, high in the mountains of the upper Galilee, was home to the kabbalists who came as refugees after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Under the leadership of Rabbi Isaac Luria, they formulated a myth that gave cosmic significance to their experience of exile and suffering--and which brought comfort to their own generation and all that have followed. They essentially argued that since the creation, God, Him/Herself has been in exile, and that by doing mitzvot and good deeds, we act as God's partners in tikkun olam, repairing the world and remedying this existenial exile.

One can see why they were attracted to Tzefat. It is a beautiful place, with narrow streets, gorgeous stone buildings, and a mystical air that comes from its high altitude. It is about the closest thing Israel has to the Himalayas, which I experienced two months ago. There is a kind of clarity about the place that is very powerful. Of course it also tends to attract lunatics, which is the down side of the mystical enterprise. I'm not a mystic by learning or inclination; my ancestors were Litvak misnagdim, the rationalists who opposed this approach. But I do appreciate the beauty of the mystical path, which speaks directly to the heart as well as the head.

Today we are off to the Golan, which should offer some nice hiking and a further respite from the heat.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Tale of Two Shuls

Last Shabbat, I had a very interesting experience at two different synagogues, which made me think a lot about what moves me in a service.

Friday night, we enjoyed a wonderful Shabbat dinner with friends who are modern Orthodox. Afterwards, we went with them to their shul, Shira Chadasha.

Shira Chadasha is a unique and fascinating place. It is as liberal as it gets within the Orthodox world. For instance, while they still require the traditional ten men, they have added their own policy, requiring ten women as well before they constitute a minyan. Women lead a great deal of the service, though certain sections, such as the Amidah, are led by men. Most interestingly, Shira Chadasha has a retractable mechitza, which runs straight down the middle aisle. As a result, women and men are separated for much of the service--but the women are alongside, rather than behind, the men, so they pray as equals rather than as subordinates. And in non-halachic parts of the service, such as announcements and celebrations, the mechitza is retracted.
They are, in other words, pushing the boundaries of traditional Judaism, while still staying inside those bounds.

Their name, Shira Chadasha, means "new song" and it is apt. Metaphorically, of course, it refers to their innovative approach. Literally, the congregation employs many new and original melodies, and they are wonderful singers. There is a very strong spirit, and people pray here with all of their hearts.

And yet. . . something about the experience was disconcerting and uncomfortable to me. I admire their innovation and their commitment to the tradition--and at the same time, I find the mechitzah--even their "progressive' version--deeply offensive. I don't even think it has the desired effect, which is to help men concentrate more by avoiding the distractions of looking at the women. To begin with, this assumes heterosexuality. And even for straight men, it's pretty easy to look over the mechitza and try to figure out what the women are doing.

More importantly, though, the segregation by gender creates a very different energy on the men's side. The boisterous singing has a kind of competative element. In this male-only environment, everyone is trying out "out-holy" his neighbors. I have seen this very frequently in frum settings. There is a kind of religious one-upsmanship that just doesn't feel very spiritual to me.

So Saturday morning, I went back to my usual shul, the Reform Kol Haneshama. I was very, very happy to be able to sit with my wife again! And I was moved to tears when the rabbi, Levi Kelman, called up a couple for a baby naming and embraced both of them together, with all of their family, on the bimah. There was no competition at this service; the singing was filled with male and female voices, harmonizing beautifully.

In the end, wherever it sits, and however it retracts, a mechitza is a wall. And I believe that shul should be a place for tearing down walls, for togetherness rather than separation.

I am, in short, proud to be a liberal Jew.

We're off on tiyyul (tour) this week, in the Galilee. I'll have more on that soon!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Stalactites and Jerusalem Lights

It has been a busy time here in Jerusalem. We've been settling into our apartment in Bakaa, and getting into a regular rhythm of life. Our neighborhood is in a great part of the city. It's peaceful, filled with chic shops and cafes, and lots of English-speakers. And a mixture of religious and secular that is becoming increasingly unique in this rather polarized city. I've been enjoying praying at Kol Haneshama, which is the local Reform synagogue. The singing is amazing, and the community is very spirited. Plus, it is about a six minute walk from the apartment, which is a real luxury.

I've been missing playing music. I have no access to a piano or banjo, so last week, I bought a cheap guitar and have been teaching myself how to play, taking lessons over the internet. I'm not going to win any awards, but it's keeping my fingers limber, and I'll have some good callouses for when I get back to the banjo upon returning home. And I've really enjoyed it.

This week, Jerusalem is hosting a "festival of light." No, it's not Chanukah in June. Scattered throughout the Old City are a bunch of artistic installations, created with various forms of light. Two nights ago, we did a tour, and saw some rather extraordinary pieces. It was great just to be able to walk through the narrow alleyways of the Old City at night, and to see so many Jerusalemites doing the same, savoring a night out on the town with their families. The pieces themselves made great use of the historic sites, playing with the natural light of the Jerusalem stone, which gives the city it's nickname, Jerusalem of Gold. I'm attaching a movie piece which I took at the show; it involved a kind of sound and light projection, literally onto the walls of a one thousand year old building.

Since yesterday was our anniversary, Janet and I went out to eat at Darna, a very authentic Moroccan restaurant. It was really fun to have a relaxed meal of unusual tastes, with exotic salads and couscous and delicious, sweet Moroccan tea.

Today, we took a pre-Shabbat drive to Ma'arat Ha-Netifim, the stalactite cave just outside Jerusalem. Entering the cave, one descended into another world. The formations were fantastic, and it was, in some ways, similar to diving in Eilat: a kind of dreamscape. Plus, it was very pleasantly cool on what was, outside, a sweltering day.

A remarkable feature of Israel is that, while small, it seems to have a little bit of everything, from coral reef to underground caves. There is one mountain for skiing, one golf course, one grotto by the sea. . . you get the idea. So much to see in such a compact bit of land.

This coming week, we are off for a week-long tour of the Galilee, in the northern part of the country. I'll try to post something from there. Meanwhile, Shabbat shalom to all.