Sunday, August 19, 2007

London--lost, found, and two museums

Trip from Tel Aviv to London went relatively smoothly, until the end, when they made me take off the lovely earphones that kept me from hearing the poor screaming boy behind me. He screamed for two hours, most of which I couldn’t hear. But the last forty minutes of the flight, part of which was spent in circling-the-airport hell—well the good part of me wanted to help his parents and the bad part of me just wanted to strangle the kid. (The kid was in pain, so really I’m not very nice. Oh, well.) As in Israel, landed and exited passport control and security without a hitch. And bought my tickets to and from the hotel. I had memorized and drawn the map from the train station to the hotel, so I exited the station in the drizzling rain and confidently marched off in the opposite direction, having turned myself around, as usual. I didn’t realize my mistake for several blocks, by which time the rain had turned from drizzle to downpour, my poncho had begun to leak, and I was wandering aimlessly, swearing like a drunk. By dint of containing myself enough to smile sweetly and ask every passerby where Norfolk Square was, I was directed down one street, overshot it, doubled back up the next street, and finally found Norfolk. Which is a divided street with a gated park down the center. Which was locked. Which I was on the wrong side of. Yes, folks. Turns out that my hotel is a block and a half from the hotel. I just walked it with my friend Monique. It took five minutes. Last night, I walked twelve blocks to find the same hotel. I suppose I could have made it take longer, but I’m not sure how. The hotel is pretty basic—a bed, a cupboard for clothes, and a washbasin. The bathroom and shower are down the hall. There isn’t supposed to be smoking, but there is a bit. Oh, and my room is on the third (American counting) floor—and, needless to say, no elevator. So last night, I was feeling more than a bit grumpy as I tried to figure out why I had been so excited about a day in London.

Well, today made up for it, starting with an ample breakfast, complete with lots of coffee. Then headed off to the British Museum. I got there ten minutes after it opened and it was already crowded. I had no desire to learn or see anything in particular, so I just wandered. Here’s a list of random impressions:

1) Dave has said how he was amazed at the sheer effrontery of a people who can just walk into another civilization and take stuff of the magnitude that the Brits took. I would emphatically concur (and add that the Germans were no better—as witness the amazing stuff in the Permagon Museum (uh, named after the temple that the museum is built around!)). It’s also interesting that rather than saying, “okay, we took it and we’re keeping it because we can,” the signs explain that the Brits have preserved it better than the countries of origin would have. This may well be true, but it’s kind of changing the subject. Yeah, the US can’t begin to match this crew when it comes to colonization. (Yeah, yeah, I know it’s not a contest. No, I’m not trying to justify US actions anytime, anywhere. Just saying that there are a lot of very black pots and kettles lying around.)
2)
I was really impressed by the number of people who visited. Yes, it’s summer and it is the British Museum, but still—people really were interested in every part of the museum (okay, more interested in the mummies, but hey—dead people; what’s not to like?). People were clustered around the Rosetta Stone, around the Parthenon, around the various statues, through every room in the museum, and they were talking about history. How cool is that?
3)
I don’t quite know what to make of what survives. Historians only have what’s left. What’s left is stuff that’s hard to destroy. So an ancient civilization that expresses itself through monuments of one kind or another will leave a record. Those that express themselves in other ways—maybe not. What remains thus determines what the past is to the present—but how does that relate to what the past was to those who lived it? This is hardly a new question; I think it shapes any beginning course in historiography. However, it was the question that kept coming back as I went through the museum.
4)
The museum has free tours through the day. I was in the right place and time for one on Greece. The guide was absolutely excellent. He gave a brief summary of Grecian history, then led us through the development of Greek art, particularly the way the Greeks looked at natural forms. I asked about how different cultures use stylized forms versus trying to achieve a natural form—Egyptian versus classical Greek, for example. I can’t remember the precise answer he gave, but it was clear and concise. It led me to remember that the Greeks believed that this world was a microcosm of the world of the gods. If you believe that, then learning about the natural world is a form of connection to the gods themselves. This is also true in China, where meditation on a small piece of perfection—bonsai, or a piece of carved jade—encapsulates the whole world. By contrast, if you believe the world is best expressed through patterns or through emotion or some other way, then attempting to recreate the world precisely would have little meaning. There are real consequences to each choice in the way each kind of culture understands the world. Hmm, I think I’m just restating Weber. I can live with that…

About 1 PM, the museum became unbearably crowded and it was time to meet Monique, a friend from Ulpan, who is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck Rabbinical College. We headed over to the British Library where there was an exhibit of the sacred—the texts and practices of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I will say less about this exhibit, although in many ways, it meant more to me. I am reminded how much I am a person of words and stories—and how little we know of the stories behind the great monuments in the British Museum (oh, we know some, I know that, but still…). There were many first, many oldests. There were examples of how sacred text is further interpreted. How it was and is beautified. How the same text is interpreted in different or similar ways in the different traditions. I was pretty happy, I have to say. And it was a lot of fun to go through with someone who was as excited and engaged in the material as I was. (By the way, the exhibit was pretty well attended, though not mobbed, and there were very serious discussions all around.) About half an hour before closing, I wanted to see the rest of the Library. Yeah, that’s when I was reminded that one floor up was the Magna Carta. And a whole bunch of other AMAZING stuff. I had twenty minutes to look at a first folio, at Chaucer, at a whole display of the writings of British scientists. And the whole time I was saying, I have to remember that I saw...well, fact is, there was too much to remember. I could have spent an entire day looking at the range—through time and subject—contained in that place. It was a whole different kind of sacred—but no less sacred for all that—than the words below. And it was different also from the concrete stuff of the British Museum. An amazing contrast.

Monique and I finished the day at a pub with beer, excellent Thai food, and conversation. She’s heading off to spend the night with relatives. I’m going to post this and head for bed. What a day! And tomorrow—back home again.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Tel Aviv and Jaffa

I spent all day Wednesday museum-hopping. First, I took the bus to the Eretz Yisrael Museum. Not bad at all—lots of little buildings, each with a different focus. I did wish for someone to comment to as I walked. I covered the entire museum, from beginning to end—history of stamps and coins, of pottery and of glass, as well as a whole section on material culture—how people made food, clothing, and so on. What struck me about this last section was how similar the tools and methods were to those anywhere else in the world. Weaving, bread making, carpentry, and so on seem to have a limited range of variation. It’s a bit like falafel. Every culture has its own version of falafel in pita: some kind of carb wrapped around some kind of filling, generally with lots of options for interest. Burrito, poor-boy sandwich, mu-shu, pasties, and so on.

I almost skipped stamps and coins—I mean, who cares?—but was very glad that I didn’t. I was reminded that stamps, money, weights and measures, standards of all kinds are part of what societies need to manage—the Hubble problems of a few years bear witness to what happens when those measurements aren’t standard. There is a distinction between ideology and values and those tools that need not have ideological import. I say “need not” because, of course, we put all kinds of symbols on our money and stamps—some frivolous (the US series of “biggests”, for example); some not (whose face is on which piece of currency).

I went from that museum to the art museum and had only about an hour there. It was fantastic—great impressionist and post-impressionist collection. Some weird stuff, but I didn’t much care; there was more than enough to see. I had posted earlier about how children in London and France are taught to appreciate art. Well, I saw the consequences at the museum. I was looking at some “weird stuff,” when I noticed a French father and his daughter of about eight. He was explaining some principle of art that was exemplified by the picture—I have no idea what; couldn’t understand the language well enough—and she was nodded with great interest and concentration, adding a few words here and there. I realized then that this French eight-year-old clearly understood more about art than I did. Ouch!

That evening, I took Avital out for dinner. She drove us down to the waterfront, where there were many shops, restaurants, and most of the city enjoying the warm, humid night. It was lovely to be out with her, talking about her experiences growing up in two countries, in the army, and as a scout. The Israeli Scout experience sounds not too dissimilar to 4-H in terms of developing skills and leadership. Avital was emphatic about distinguishing it from US scouting—it has a huge membership; many, many families participate. Much more than school, it is clear that scouting has shaped her. Which makes me wonder about looking at it as an education model for Jewish kids in the states. She also spent her last year in Scouts working with Israeli kids in south Tel Aviv. These are kids who don’t have the resources—money or other people—to run effective tribes, so many teens come to help and she was one. She spoke with great pride of bringing fourth grade Jews and Arabs together and watching them go from distrust to great friendship.

She also spoke of what it’s like to be in the Army—the bonds you form with others, the sense of responsibility of knowing your country truly needs you, and the fact that she doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life and, until she is done with the Army, doesn’t have to. As we sat on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, we also talked about how there is no sense of danger or war and, late into the night, there are still families and children wandering around, both in groups or alone. So there is a very different sense of what danger means, as well as some interesting ways to compartmentalize it.

It was a lovely evening and ended with each of us showing the others pictures of people and places.

Thursday morning, Karen and Jim’s friend, Yascha, picked me and took me to breakfast. He is a lovely man with a generous spirit. We returned to the same boardwalk, this time in the daytime, and sat speaking Hebrew and enjoying the food and the waves. Then he took me to buy a suitcase (either that or just throw more money at British Air) and headed off.

In the meantime, Steven had arrived from Caesarea, enroute to the airport. We headed down to Jaffa and Neve Tzedek for the day. Actually don’t have much to report on that—both were fine to wander around, but again I am reminded that I’m much more interested in how people live now than in the history of stones. In Neve Tzedek, we did walk through the Suzanne Dellal Dance Center, though, and I felt like I was on a college campus. Amazing place for all kinds of dance. And, on the walk from Jaffa to Neve Tzedek, I detoured into the Mediterranean (finally). I did roll my jeans up, but it took two waves before I was wet to the knees. Warm and salty and very blue. What else is there to say? Anyway, glad I made it in before I left!

Kiryat Mal’achi and Yad Mordechai

One of the things that pleases me most about this visit to Tel Aviv is getting around. I know which bus to take where and, more or less, how often and when they come. When I get on a bus for the first time, I take out my city route and make the connection between reality and schematic. Which then means that, when I look at the map later, I am seeing a place, not simply a set of intersecting lines. I do this because I have no sense of direction at all—put me in a place and I will turn the wrong way about 80% of the time (if it were 100%, that would be preferable, but no…). And don’t give me oral directions; I just can’t make sense of them. But a map and an address—I’m set. That, plus the buses—well, I feel like I’ve gotten a decent sense of Tel Aviv. Aside from the weather (the humidity is just about unbearable), it’s a great city. I don’t have a lot to add to what the books say about the three cities—Haifa is the working man’s town; Jerusalem, a crazy center for religion in all shapes and sizes; Tel Aviv, the center of business and art. Even with all Jerusalem’s insanity, I think I would choose to live near Jerusalem for one rather embarrassing reason—I can tolerate the climate. It is dry and hot, which I can deal with. The humidity kills me—I just can’t cope. Hardly profound, but there it is.

On to my day Monday. I left very early to get to the Central Bus Station and from there took a bus to Kastina, near Kiryat Mal’achi. It was a long, sweaty ride in a bus that had no air-conditioning and a grumpy bus driver. More of the passengers were Ethiopian than I had seen before, with many elderly women and children.

The whole area that is south of Tel Aviv is economically depressed. The Jewish Agency is trying to find US congregations to help support the area, and Beth Emek is one. For example, this summer, two students came to help with Beth Emek summer camp, as a way of connecting the two areas.

I was put in touch with Inbal, a young woman who is Miranda’s age, finishing her first year at university. She did three years in the army, completing her officer’s training, and then began studying psychology. Taking groups or individuals to the various sites/sights in the region is a part-time job for her, and one she takes very seriously. She grew up in Kiryat Mal’achi and clearly loves it and Israel. So the two of us spent a pleasant day together. She had wanted to show me a youth center, an art program, and more, but in August, much is shut down. What I got to see was a senior day center and a kibbutz. All very interesting. And, while most of this trip has been a personal journey, this part I took very seriously as a representative of Beth Emek, whose job was to bring back information we can use as a congregation.

Here is what I found out: the senior day center is a place where the elderly can go to be with community, to make things—some to decorate the center; some to sell (interestingly, the men make mosaics; the women sew. Apparently, the men are “lazier” (and I do quote!) than the women, but mosaics hold their interest, while sewing does not. Fascinating. The center offers exercise, showers and haircuts, meals, health care, and company. What I noticed most were the smiles and the smell—or lack thereof. In the US, every center I’ve been in has a slight smell of urine. That was completely absent here. Have to say, though, that I don’t know if that’s because of the kind of place or the kind of care. The center director showed me the kitchen, being renovated by donations from one American congregation; the art room, supported by another; the barber shop/salon and so on. In the middle, were about thirty seniors playing one kind of game or another. I wanted to take pictures, but was afraid of invading their privacy—not even. When the camera came out, each one wanted a picture and then to admire it. I didn’t catch on quite soon enough, but would have taken pictures of each one if I had understood sooner. The center for Ethiopian Jews was attached, but—it being August—not active. Still, I had a chance to see the work participants produce.

Inbal talked to me at length about the volunteer opportunites—drama, music, and art; helping with youth; working on computers; teaching English (no knowledge of Hebrew required) and, of course, working with the seniors. It turns out that the Jewish Agency maintains an apartment where volunteers can stay rent-free while they help. Very cool. So that was Kiryat Mala’achi.

Then we drove south, near Eshkelon, to Yad Mordechai, to see the museum there. This is a kibbutz that took its inspiration (and some of its fighters) from the Warsaw Ghetto. During the 1948 war of independence, it held off the Egyptian army for several days, eventually fleeing, but by then, other fighters had had the time to organize and get weapons. The museum itself is a nicely done place, but what I was most interesting in was the ideology behind the museum.

Two things—first, it claimed responsibility for the State—had it not been for the defense, Tel Aviv would have fallen, and so on. Same thing was true in Tzfat—it was the defense for the north. Clearly, both are true—Israel was threatened on all sides; had the defense faltered in any case, well, the situation could have been very bad indeed. And the need (both perceived and real) for defense continues to this day. Both Inbal and Tali knew that their work in the army was important in allowing Israel to continue to exist and to exist in relative security. Very different than in the US.

Second, the museum made a distinction between Jews who fought and those who went “to the slaughter.” It’s a distinction I used to make—I can remember when “Dona, Dona” was one of my favorite songs. From making that distinction, I went to a belief that people simply do the best they can and the best they are capable of. Perhaps some of those who ended up in the camps were easily led, however, some of those who ended up outside the camps were lucky. The problem, as always, is that we never know where our choices will lead and that each person has a different set of constraints—the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto were, by and large, young and unattached. From that perspective, it’s easy to see the world in black and white and it’s easier to act without considering the consequences. And, as in a previous post, those who resisted were not left unscarred either.

Following the museum, we had a tour of the battleground and then of the honey factory (cute, but frankly, better for the ten-year-old set). I’m bringing back Israeli honey for Dave. Deborah (meaning “bee” in Hebrew, just for the record) has declared that he will need to decide whether the honey she brought back from the South of France is better than Israeli honey. A tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

Chassidic tale--or And Now for Something Completely Different

Chassidic Story

<>I have heard this story twice now in Israel. The first time was from the storyteller in Haifa who was supposed to be speaking on Jewish identity. He told a long, elaborate version which gave each character specific context and motivation. The second time was at the Shabbat lunch in Jerusalem, where the Jerusalem guest told the story. This time it was primarily plot, with little description of the characters. In each case the story fit the teller. But the fact that the same story was told in two different places is enough to pass it on. And I presume my telling will fit this teller as well.
The Baal Shem Tov (abbreviated as Besht) was dying. Each of his followers came to him and to each he gave a task that was his alone to complete in this world. Finally there was only one young boy left, barely past the age of Bar Mitzvah. He was an orphan and had followed the Besht since his parents had died some years before. Now he, too, wanted a task, a mission that only he could fulfill. But the Besht was reluctant: “You are too young,” he said. “You do not know what will be asked of you.” The boy insisted: “I am past the age of Bar Mitzvah. And do any of us know what will be asked of us?” To this the Besht had to agree. He thought of this particular boy and his talents. This was a boy He could not parse the halachic arguments in Talmud, but who had a gift for story and song that some of the followers took lightly—although the Besht had noticed that when the boy began a story, they were silent from beginning to end.“I will give you a task,” he said. “But you must promise that you will not accept it until you are eighteen. It is important, but not easy, and you must be old enough to take it on with full knowledge.” To this the boy agreed immediately.“You will be my storyteller,” said the dying rabbi. “You will tell the stories I have told and you will pass on the work we have done. Each week you will travel somewhere else for Shabbat, and as long as your work continues, you will have no home. Do you understand why this is so difficult?”
The boy, being young and eager to see the world, did not understand, but nodded eagerly, nevertheless. The Besht smiled, knowing something of youth, but continued. “You will want to know when your task is completed, I suppose.” The boy had not thought that far ahead, but now he nodded obediently. “There will come a time when you do not know the end of the story, but another will complete it for you. When that day comes, it will be time for you to find a wife and a home. Will you remember?” The boy nodded again and left with great eagerness. A few days later, the Besht died, and was mourned by all his followers.
The boy, obedient to the Besht, waited for several years. He did not wait idly, but practiced telling stories to old and young. He learned songs and to play a wild fiddle. And time passed very slowly, but pass it did and eventually the boy turned eighteen. The day after his birthday, he took a pack and his violin and set off down the road to tell his first stories.
After a day or so, he arrived at a small shtetl on Friday afternoon. After evening services, he announced that he was the Besht’s storyteller and the next afternoon, during motzi Shabbat, he would be in the town square prepared to tell wonderful stories. There was not exactly a huge outcry, in fact, no one really took notice, but the boy did not care, so sure was he of his mission.
But the next afternoon, only three people waited in the town square—an old woman and her two small grandchildren. The boy was disheartened, but remembered his task, squared his shoulders and began.
Now you would think—he certainly did—that the years of practice would have helped him in telling stories. And perhaps that is the case. It is certain that his voice and body had learned to move comfortably with the words of each story he had carefully and meticulously learned. But the story he told was not one that he had practiced. It was one that flowed through his body and mouth without guidance, a story that came from that place and the people listening, but also from the words of the Besht. The boy finished the story and told another and by now a few more people were listening. At the end of the third story, he was exhausted, but twelve people were in the audience and two offered to house him for the night.
<>That evening, he ate well and talked into the night. Before he fell asleep in his comfortable bed, he took out paper and pencil and sketched his hosts in words and pictures. The next morning, he packed his few belongings, took his leave, and traveled on into the woods and to the next village.
It was same at this next village—he announced himself at erev Shabbat services, he waited until Shabbat afternoon, a few people listened as he told another story that flowed through him, and when he finished his stories, the square was half-filled. <>The first months were the most difficult as he learned how to sleep, how to pack, how to wash, and how to feed himself as he traveled, each week in a new town. But over time, he learned and over time, his reputation spread, so that when he came to the town square of each village, he would find the townsfolk already assembled and waiting eagerly. And so passed the first year and the second and the third. By his twenty-first birthday, villages eagerly waited for the young storyteller to arrive and fill their Shabbat afternoons with tales that came straight from the mouth of the Besht. And the storyteller loved every minute of it, loved the way the children elbowed each other to make space in the front, and loved the way the old men and women nodded to themselves as one part or another pulled at a memory. And also the storyteller saw the young men and women who were his age marrying and beginning new lives in their villages. He was still looked forward to the next village and the next story, but part of him began to wonder when his task would be fulfilled. He had forgotten what the Besht had told him so long ago, remembering only that there would be an end—someday.
When ten years had passed, the storyteller was a strong, confident man who knew the ways of the world and had stories of his own to tell, although these he confined to the notebooks he carried with him. His job was still to tell the Besht’s stories, not his own, and he was still proud to do so. But now he found himself lonely. The men and women his age had homes and young children. He had a different bed every night and no one to share it with. And he still could not remember when his task would end. <>One day, as he played his fiddle near a brook, a horse and rider approached. “You are the Besht’s storyteller?” asked the rider. “I have been searching for you for three months. My master, who lives in Italy, requests that you come and tell stories to his community. He will pay you well.”
“I do not tell stories to be paid,” replied the storyteller. <>
“Nevertheless, he requests that you come. He beseeches you, sir,” said the servant.
“I go where the wind takes me,” said the storyteller.
“Is there a reason the wind cannot blow you to Italy and my master?” asked the servant. The storyteller smiled. He was free to travel where he wanted and if a rich Italian wanted him to come to tell the Besht’s stories, why not do so?
The rich Italian was, indeed, very rich. The storyteller slept in great comfort and was fed the finest meals Italy had to offer. If this were a different tale, the Italian would have a daughter for the storyteller to fall in love with, but in fact, he had only sons. After three days, the Italian gave a banquet for the community and at its end, the storyteller stood up to begin, opened his mouth, and found that no story emerged. He stood gaping at the crowd for a moment, his mind empty and confused, then from his own travels pulled one tale and then another. He told them well and the crowd applauded, but the Italian looked puzzled and disappointed. This was not what he had expected.
The next morning, the storyteller made ready to leave. He had taken no money from the Italian, but nevertheless felt profoundly ashamed. He had failed the Besht, he had pretended to be something he was not. He felt a great need to leave and consider whether this was the sign that his task was over. And yet, how could this failure be the end? As he set off down the road, the Italian hailed him. <>
“Sir,” he said. “May I walk with you?”
This was perhaps the last thing the storyteller would have wanted, but what could he say? The two men walked in silence for several minutes and, as they walked, the storyteller felt the familiar push of a story waiting to be told.
“Last night,” he said to the Italian, “You must have been surprised at my tales, as they had nothing to do with the Besht.”
“I was,” replied the man. “But I thought there must be a reason and so I came to you today to see what that might be.”
“The stories I tell come to me without my conscious thought,” he said. “I prepare and practice, but when the words come, they come of their own accord. They have always come—until last night when they did not. Over the years, I have collected enough stories to satisfy an audience, but what I did last night was not part of the task the Besht set me. Now, however, there is a story that I would tell and perhaps it is for you alone to hear.” <>

Here is the tale:
Near Passover one year, the Besht and a few followers came to a shtetl that appeared to be deserted. This was odd—it should have been bustling with Passover preparations, but instead, the streets were quiet and doors and windows were locked. The group of travelers knocked at one door and another, but no one answered until, toward the end of the street, they heard a door being unbolted and an old woman beckoned them in. There they found the villagers crowded together in great fear.
It seemed that there was new and fiery priest who had begun preaching against the Jews, as was not uncommon for that time. It was not uncommon during the season of Passover for Christians to tell each other how Jews would kill a Christian child to bake matzo. There was no truth in this story, but those who told and those who believed would then come through Jewish shtetls, destroying all that they found. And this new priest had the gift of inspiring action, reminding his audiences of every imagined sin of the Jews from the beginning of time until the present. It was from this that the village was hiding.
When the Besht heard the story, his face grew still. He turned to the youngest member of the group—the boy who had become the storyteller—and told him to go to the priest and tell him that the Besht would speak to him. The boy, with great reluctance and fear, made his way to the Christian section of town, staying in the shadows and praying that nothing would give him away as a Jew. He knocked on the priest’s door—once, twice, and finally on the third time, the door opened and the priest stood there. The boy did not look at him, but simply muttered: “The Baal Shem Tov wants to see you.” He could hear the sharp hiss of breath and the priest whispered: “What did you say?” The boy repeated: “The Baal Shem Tov wants to see you.” The priest swallowed and said: “Tell him I will come in two days.”
The boy nodded and raced out of the village and back to the Besht as fast as he could. But the Besht was not pleased. “In two days this village will be destroyed,” he cried. “You must return and tell him to come at once.” With even more fear, the boy made his way back to the village and to the priest’s room, where he delivered the message, expecting at any moment to be hauled in front of the crowd as the first victim of the coming pogrom. Instead, the priest sat for a moment, then pulled on a cloak and followed the boy back to the shtetl. There the Besht waited in the village square. He met the priest and they walked off together. The priest never returned and without his words to rouse them, the peasants did not storm the shtetl and the Jews observed Passover in peace. <>

The storyteller stopped and looked at his host, who was wiping his eyes. “That is not the end of the story,” said the Italian. “Let me tell you how it ended.”
The storyteller started as the Besht’s parting words, so long forgotten, came back to him: “There will come a time when you do not know the end of the story, but another will complete it for you. When that day comes, it will be time for you to find a wife and a home.” He nodded and said, “I am ready.” <>

The Italian’s tale:
Many years ago, a Jewish family was fleeing from a pogrom. It was a large family piled into a small wagon and the horse was running with all its might. If the mother had not been clutching the baby so hard; if the two older boys had not been poking each other; if the older girl had not been hiding beneath the seats—well, there are no ifs. The littlest boy, just old enough to have had his first haircut, lost his grip as the wagon turned a corner and bumped through a ditch. He found himself under a thorn bush, unable to get free, and the wagon raced on without him. Some time later, a farmwife found him crying in the yard and took him to the local monastery, which raised him as a Christian. As the boy grew he found comfort in the monks’ prayers, the same comfort that he had once found in his mother’s lullabies, although he did not then remember them and did not remember anything before life in the monastery.
<>The boy grew into a man and decided to become a priest and remain in the comfort of the prayers. Like other Christians, he was taught of the Jews’ sins and he believed them. And, for some reason, everything Jewish enraged him, infuriated him. He heard the word “Jew” and his mind would fill with resentment as words of hate came out of his mouth. The first time this happened, he was unsettled, but as the priests around him praised his fiery speech, he accepted this as a gift, and grew to embrace it.
Then just before Easter, three nights before he was to give a speech to a village arousing them to destroy a small shtetl, he had a dream. In the dream, a kind old man spoke to him: “I am the Baal Shem Tov,” said the man. “You must find me and hear my story.” The priest awoke, shrugged off the dream, and continued his preparations. But the next night the dream returned and again, the priest paid no attention. But then, after the third night, a boy knocked on his door and told him that the Baal Shem Tov wanted to see him.
It was on that walk that the Baal Shem Tov told him his story. He sang the lullabies that his mother had once sung as she rocked him to sleep. All the loneliness and rage that a small boy felt at being abandoned rose up and left, as the priest understood what had happened so many years before. Then he wept for the boy that had been and for what the man had done to his own people.
“How can I return and repent?” asked the man who had been a priest.
“You will make your way in the world, caring for those of your people who need it most,” said the Besht. “I do not know whether the damage you have done can be atoned for. But know this: if a man comes who tells you this story but does not know the end, then you will know that you have made atonement.” <>The Italian and the storyteller looked at each other, knowing that each had completed the tale of the other and each was free of their allotted tasks. They embraced and then separated. The Italian returned to his home and found that his life changed but little—except that a hole in his heart now felt full. The storyteller continued on for a time, still telling stories, but now they were his own tales of the places and people he had seen as he traveled. In not too long, he found himself in a shtetl that was most welcoming, staying with the town rabbi who had a daughter….and from this you can write the end of his story yourself. <>

In writing this, I did find that the story became my particular telling. There were bits that others put in that I thought didn’t fit; other bits that I wanted to expand. An interesting thing, telling a folk-tale….

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Shabbat doesn't always come on Saturday

August 14, 2007

A home in Tel Aviv

I woke up this morning with a headache and feeling like I just didn’t want to move. Not really sick, but just bone-tired. I was supposed to travel south of Tel Aviv to meet with a children’s book author who is a friend of Hedva’s, but I couldn’t face the thought of going anywhere. Instead I called home and blithered to Dave and Deborah (especially Deborah, just because she’s done this before). Then cancelled my appointment and lay about and read some of the books that fill the bookshelves of this house. The house—where I am? I am staying in Nurit and Colin’s house while they are gone. It is the lower floor of a two story house and it feels like family. There are signs of children everywhere—books, writings, clothing. There is a refrigerator full of family food (which I am supposed to help eat). The dishwasher and the washing machine are almost identical to mine. There is a pet—a small dog named Meshi (silk). Meshi is silent and very affectionate. The last two nights, she has slept by my bed, which was quite a comfort. The neighborhood is quiet and there is a small shopping center around the corner where I bought a falafel for lunch and where I will buy fruit in a bit. Tali was here last night, watching TV and chatting amiably. She’ll be back tomorrow and tomorrow evening we’ll go out to eat. In the meantime, the day has been entirely rejuvenating—tomorrow I am ready to head back into Tel Aviv for one event or another.

Shabbat in Jerusalem

My companions and I separated for Shabbat. Steven was interested in going to the Kotel for services, I was not. And then I had all the problems of the day, particularly the wet phone. So I decided to go to a nearby synagogue—one I could walk to. It is Yedidya, and is similar to Beth Israel in Berkeley in terms of being Orthodox, but verging on egalitarian. The building was simple—white stone or concrete, two stories with the synagogue on top; the social hall below. In the social hall was a separate ark for a women’s minyan. Girls become Bat Mitzvah there with great regularity and men attend—although they may choose to then go to a regular service (the point is—there is choice). I got there right on time, always a mistake, and there were only a few women scattered through the women’s section, and about three times as many men. However, by the service’s end, both sides were close to full (men’s perhaps a bit more crowded). The books were entirely in Hebrew—the most amusing thing was the translation of the one Aramaic prayer into Hebrew, a very nice touch—and I could follow pretty well.

There was no rabbi and the service was led by a young man whose suffered from a common problem of youth—mumbling and speed. And yet, I found I could follow and the congregation took up melodies or silence in a comfortable rhythm that was incredibly moving and powerful. Unlike in Berlin and in Tzfat, there was nothing forced about the service; unlike the service in Haifa, this did not feel imported (although it had been initially). It was exactly what my soul needed.

After services, I headed back to the apartment. I was a bit disappointed that no one had asked me for dinner, but there hadn’t really been a way to communicate my desire. And, as it turned out, I was happy to be alone and quiet.

The next morning, with a phone still only working intermittently, I decided that I should take my cue and not try to go into the city by cab. Besides, I wanted to see what a Torah reading at Yedidya would be like. Services in Jerusalem begin early—which is very nice, they end early, too. I enjoyed the morning service as well, although the young man reading Torah went so quickly that even though I knew the words and melody, I could hardly keep up. On the other hand, he read the whole parsha, so speed may have had its virtues. The d’var Torah was given by a woman—in American-accented Hebrew, which is always easier to understand. And, as they passed the Torah around, when it came to the women’s side, a man passed it to a woman, who then carried it around. I have no trouble with men and women being separated—having separate spaces for each allows a different kind of fellowship to emerge than when families sit together—it is the prohibitions that bother me. Here, some women wore tallits, women led parts of the service, and they have made compromises with Torah reading.

During announcements, one woman said that if we wanted to be hosted for Kiddush lunch, we should see her following the service. There was ample food below, but I wanted company, and so talked with her. Her name was Linda and she knew the Bay Area and Stuart Kelman, who had hosted her. And she found me a couple who were looking to fill their lunch table, a short, round couple (Esther and Steven) a bit older than me, who were as gracious as could be. Esther went off to set the table; I found people to converse with. When Linda came back, I asked for her full name to pass onto Stuart. “Linda Gradstein” she said. My expression must have shown that I was trying to remember why the name was familiar, so she added “from NPR, but that’s my other life.” Yeah, so I had a long conversation with the Israel correspondent from NPR. What a place! The conversation, by the way, was entirely about the nature of the synagogue and about religion in Israel. Much of what she told me is woven into my description—although I will stress that the lack of a rabbi is a philosophical decision and one that has mixed results (which I understood absolutely completely—much more than she knew!). She was someone I would like to know better—down-to-earth, engaged in community life, and (as you might expect) articulate.

Lunch was amazing—Esther and Steven had been married only five years, second marriage for both and they were a pleasant, contented couple. Along with me, there were two young women from Birthright, and a man who lived in Jerusalem, but was kind of a waif (that is, currently single and socially clueless, although with a decent job and an odd hobby (codes in the Bible)). Esther had lived in Berkeley and knew the Rosens. It’s a funny thing—Stuart Kelman and Daniel Boyarin are names that keep coming back; that I know these people gives me credibility, oddly enough, and now the Rosens. It’s a very small Jewish world indeed. Esther served about five courses for Shabbat lunch: appetizers, soup, chicken with grape leaves, vegetables, and stuffed cabbage, and some kind of dairy-free ice cream cake for dessert. I’m taking notes—Shabbat afternoon meal is an custom I could get used to.

Towards evening, I went to tea with a Servas family. While that was nice, there is little more to say about the day—I went, we talked, and I returned to get ready to leave for Tel Aviv the next day.

Birthday at the Israel Museum

I wasn’t sure how I would feel on my fiftieth birthday—in a strange place away from my family and friends. I hoped it would be good, but had no great expectations. I woke, got myself up and out the door to go to the Israel Museum. It was supposed to open at 9, but I got the bus early and headed out the half-mile way by 8:10. As I walked, I called home where they enthusiastically sang the requisite song. Hearing my family sing to me as I looked across a Jerusalem valley toward the Knesset—not a bad thing at all.

It turned out the museum didn’t open until 10 and I got there at 8:45. Fortunately, they let me to wander the grounds in the cool and quiet of the morning. I walked by the model of Jerusalem prior to its destruction, through the sculpture garden (some seriously weird, others terrific), and between the black wall and white dome that together make up the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. Then a cup of coffee and eavesdropping on Hebrew conversations with more or less comprehension. Finally Brian and Steven showed up and we headed into the museum. Most of it is actually closed for a serious restoration, but that turned out to be no problem at all—there was enough to keep up going the entire day; had the rest been open it would have been a two day visit anyway. I went on the Hebrew tours of the model city and of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I didn’t get all of it, but I know the stories well enough to fill in the gaps and, for the Dead Sea Scrolls, I repeated the tour in English. I found that listening to lectures is terrific—I don’t have to understand and respond, so I can begin to get pieces and put them together. Easier than the rapid-fire news or other TV shows.

I have written at length about my response to the Wall—almost idolatry of a sort. But when I entered the Shrine of the book, a warm round room, with two thousand year pieces of writing preserved and displayed, writing that is still read aloud today in an unbroken chain, an unbroken scroll of writing and generations, I felt everything that I didn’t feel at the Wall—connection to people, to God, to history, to the meanings of the story. Even writing about it, I feel overwhelmed. And how fortunate to have been there on my birthday! How blessed I am! (By the way, this is a country in which everyone, even the fairly secular say “b’ezrat ha-Shem,” with God’s help. Unlike in the US, it isn’t a statement of religious politics, simply a comment on the reality that life isn’t always in our control.)

Steven and Brian left the museum before me to go off and rest, but we were to meet again to see an art exhibit on Jewish identity and then they were going to take me out for my birthday—really sweet of them and very much appreciated by me. Once again, I found myself waiting, this time in a great restaurant attached to the “Artist’s House” (right next to the Betzalel School for Art). I didn’t get any to eat but sorbet, but it was some of the best sorbet I’ve had. I was pretty disappointed in the exhibit, but the evening was fun—a beer for me, a dinner that was odd but excellent (scrambled eggs with Israeli salad), and interesting conversation about what we had seen during the day. Steven and I are both knowledgeable Jews engaged in our respective Jewish communities; Brian is a Christian, although how or if he practices wasn’t clear and I’m always reluctant to do a third degree on that. So much of the evening was spent discussing and explaining Jewish life and practice in the past and present.

Part of what we discussed was the politics of presentation—I went on the tours as much to hear what was presented and how it was presented as to learn (I know this history pretty damn well, as I found out yet again). However, what was interesting in the tour of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, was who was named and who was not (the shepherd boy who found the scrolls was never named, for example, nor was the man who bought them from him). It was also a remarkably conflict-free version of the tale—not mentioning, for example, the secrecy surrounding many of the non-Hebrew Bible texts. For a long time, these texts were controlled by the Dominicans, who were more interested in protecting theology than publishing the results they found. In the past five-ten years, complete translations of the schools have been published, but what the Scrolls may mean to Christian theology in particular is still in process—and clearly somewhat frightening to Church leaders. None of this was even hinted at in the tour—none. Why not? My guess would be the desire not to offend. Too bad—it is an interesting and important story. More here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_sea_scrolls.

August 7--a mixed bag of a day

It turns out the rabbinic intern who will be helping to lead services this High Holy Days was in Jerusalem at the same time I was. So we met for lunch that first day in Jerusalem. She is a rising fifth year student at the New York campus and is working on her thesis (in Jewish education), as well as acting as advisor for the new crop of rabbinic students. It turns out that the HUC-Jerusalem campus faces the Old City on one side, King David Street on the other. An incredible location, but when it was purchased around forty years ago, virtually worthless (rumor has it that it was purchased for the equivalent of one dollar). Now it is incredibly hot property, but not for sale.

We went to really nice vegetarian restaurant for lunch—roasted peppers stuffed with cheese, with leftovers to go for Shabbat evening meal—where we exchanged life stories. It was a pleasant and polite conversation—each of us telling our life stories or at least the part about how we ended up here in Jerusalem, but I don’t think either of us disclosed any deep, dark truths about ourselves or the world. In other words, a good introductory conversation to a good and thoughtful person. A couple of thoughts—first, her Hebrew seemed to be about at my level, which surprised me. I would have thought she would be fluent. However, her summer has been spent in English, as the incoming students are all really English speakers, and, as I found out later, my information that it’s hard to learn Hebrew in Jerusalem is correct. Unlike Haifa, there is little patience or appreciation for learners—too many tourists, too little time. Second, she spoke about both Rick and Laura (especially Laura) with a great deal of respect. This was interesting, though on reflection, not too terribly surprising. She is brand-new; they’ve been out for twelve years, almost a complete generation. I’m not sure what the implications of that are—but I’ll be chewing on it for a while. And finally, while we didn’t talk philosophy all that much, I am getting the sense that much of my disagreements with Rick really have to do with the direction of the Reform movement. It is so willing to go with choice and so grateful for any degree of Judaism that it feels completely bland. I am not sure what words in particular the RI used—but that is the sense that I get. As I will describe in a bit, traditional, egalitarian communities are what feel real to me—but that will be a different post.

I also got a tour of HUC, and it is indeed a lovely, small campus. A treat to see this place for Reform Judaism (whatever I may think of it personally) so close to the bastion of the Haredi.

Shopping in the Old City and Street Fair

One of my missions while in Israel was to spend the birthday money from my grandmother and parents. I had intended to buy some micrography of the parsha for the week I was born—it included the Shema and Ten Commandments, so I figured I could find it. But apparently the place for micrography is Tzfat and, due to circumstances beyond my control, I saw very little art there. I found myself a bit overwhelmed by the shopping in the Old City—so much of it is incredibly kitschy or ordinary but for the place. However, I found myself in a relatively high end store (the kind I wouldn’t normally enter except for the birthday) and there was a lovely tallit of thin wool with pomegranates, doves, and bunches of grapes on it. It came with a matching tallit bag and kippah. So I’m ending up with a tallit from Jerusalem, willy-nilly. It is a lovely thing and the grapes connect Israel and Livermore for me.

But the tallit buying took time and then getting lost took more time and energy, so that when we arrived at the Four Sephardic synagogues, they were already closed. My companions and I were tired and a bit frustrated as we trekked back along the city streets. They wanted a beer and I didn’t want to end the day—too many blind alleys. While I wasn’t sure a beer was exactly what I wanted, I didn’t have any better ideas until we passed the storyteller. All along Ben Yehuda street, which is a pedestrian mall anyway, there was a street fair. The storyteller, dressed casually, sang children’s songs—which I could follow because they were simple, and then called children up to participate. All kinds of people were there—Orthodox of all kinds, secular of all kinds, tourists and natives. And the kids were engrossed. After that I wandered up the street, past one performing group after another. The klezmer guys were the best, though—despite competing with Ethopian drumming and dancing down the road.

The day was full—Old City, lunch and tour of HUC, buying something lovely and meaningful, and finally a celebration of Jerusalem.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Individuals and community

A friend commented that she has moved toward more individualism—that “the focus on groups makes me suspicious and moves me towards the individual.” When I first read this, I thought I understood it, but now I’m not so sure. What is it about groups that is suspicious? What are the advantages and disadvantages of pulling away from a group? On this trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between individual and community. Don’t know whether what I’ve been thinking about relates to the original comment, but that comment provides the catalyst to think about the issue in a couple of different ways. One has been the majority-minority aspect of being part of a society—this is, I think, what cielledee is referring to. Another is what happens to the individual who is rooted in community as opposed to one who is not. There is probably some relationship between the two aspects, but I don’t feel like connecting them.

I think I am very used to thinking of Jews as minority groups in different societies. As I’ve written before, there’s Jewish time and Jewish practice, but it adjusts to the majority culture. That isn’t easy and I grouse about it, particularly at holiday times, but I’m used to it. I’ve never experienced a society which runs on Jewish time. Time is something that varies from culture to culture and, like language, matters only to groups. I’m distinguishing cultural time here—how we keep track of the passage of the day, the year, and what we do to mark that—from natural time—when we plant, harvest, and so on. An individual hunter/gatherer or farmer (as if there every were such a thing) would only need natural time; groups, however small, need some kind of common, cultural time and this inevitably becomes invested with meaning. When a group is an integrated minority, time is fractured.

To return to the Shoah as loss of individuals and loss of community:

My first understanding of the Holocaust was through a book called I Never Saw Another Butterfly. It was poems and drawings by the children of Terezin, which was the Nazis show camp. Music, art, poetry, and drama came out of that camp, but ultimately most of the prisoners were killed. The book gave their stories and, as a ten year old, I connected to the child my age who had written a poem I would have liked to have written and who had then been murdered. It could have been me. That connection and others (the litany of books that tell individual stories) were all about individual experiences. And it makes sense that it is the individual stories that would stick—how can you tell the story of a village that is gone? How do you show how it feels to live in a Jewish village or in a city where you can live on Jewish time in a Jewish community? It’s a much harder task. I began to understand it as I walked through the streets of Berlin and when I watched some of the home movies taken from that period. Suddenly I understood the Shoah not as six million individual Jews, but as the loss of a whole Jewish world and culture. This isn’t new to me in the abstract, but when I walked the streets or saw the videos, I could feel it in my bones.

That culture, to me, is most represented by Jewish time, although not exclusively time, also history and culture—and, of course, religion. Jewish time—that Thursday night is the end of the week and the week begins on Sunday morning. That on my walk to synagogue on Friday, the street names were all tribes (Dan Naftali, etc.). The names were bestowed with the casualness of any other housing development, but the choices were particular to Jewish culture. The language—there is no other place in the world where Hebrew is spoken. The thing about all of the above is that these are things that are almost invisible and don’t seem to matter. They aren’t about affiliating with one group or another because your group is better, more deserving, or what have you. They are simply about the underlying rhythm of life. Every one of us lives with that rhythm. But for me, in the US, the rhythm of Jewish life is continually set against the rhythm of US civil society. In Israel, that is not the case. This is the sense of completeness that I felt when I first came and it is what I will miss when I return.

So many people, of all religions, come to Israel to feel the history of the place. Ultimately, that has not been what moves me. I think I wouldn’t care where the state were located (not quite true—I do feel a connection to this land, but it is not my primary connection), so long as it were a place truly given to Jews to make a Jewish land. There is, of course, no such place. (During the various immigrations to Israel over the past century, other places were considered and even tried, but ultimately failed.) The message of Yad Vashem should be clearly that, while one Jewish civilization—not only people, but a whole way of life (in Vilna, in Berlin, in Warsaw)—was destroyed, another has risen from its ashes and that the people still live. I think that is a powerful and legitimate connection and one I didn’t really get at a visceral level until I came here. Israeli Jewish culture is not like the one that was destroyed in Europe—in is a peculiar blend of Jews from around the Mediterranean, from the US, from Europe, and more. The religious spectrum is as diverse as in the US, although with a very different state-religion relationship.

The other area of individual and community that I have been contemplating was brought home by a book I read in Jerusalem. Something like “Tales of a Female Nomad.” It’s written by a children’s book author, who lived an upscale life in LA, but was never very happy with it. She moves slowly from settled wife and author to travel in Mexico, to divorce and then travel to wherever she felt like it. She lived on very little, and had fairly amazing adventures. But as I read the book, I found myself questioning a great deal about the whole idea of traveling in that way. She takes herself to one community and then another, sometimes staying one month, and in the case of Indonesia eight years. But she isn’t part of the community—or she is and she isn’t. She has the freedom to come and to go. She is listened to and confided in precisely because she is different. This is the experience I remember from going to high school in Scotland. I was the “brazen American,” meaning I could question things, get answers, and learn the system, but always knowing I’d be going back home. So with this woman.

I think what annoyed me about the book was that she was so into telling her story of being a nomad that the reality of the community lives—of the lives of people who could not and would not leave community never came through. She did care deeply about the people she stayed with, but that isn’t the same as having a stake in the community.

The most telling and disturbing examples are from Israel and from Indonesia. In Israel, she spent some time—not much—with a Hassidic family to find spirituality (she is Jewish and was looking for her roots). She helped the women in the kitchen, but recognized quickly that they are not equal to the men and comments that she just doesn’t like being treated as second-class. Well, fine—see my response to the Wall. But as an anthropologist, you would think she’d try to understand the society in which she found herself.

Then she goes off to Indonesia, through happenstance, finds herself living in the palace of a prince, learning spirituality from him. Now she notes that Indonesia is both sexist and composed of rigid castes. Yet somehow this doesn’t bother her for EIGHT years. Why not? Because she is not part of the society. She is a stranger and strangers have a unique place in societies. People can tell her secrets, she can observe or participate without any real obligation to the society. If things don’t work out, she can move on. What pissed her off about the Hassids was precisely that she did not have a special place in that society—she was just another unimportant woman.

Now it should be clear that I wasn’t terribly fond of the author, just didn’t think she was very insightful, but I think the questions the book raises about being a nomad or being settled and what each implies about relation to a society are very interesting. She is at the opposite pole from Ilka’s in-laws, whose family is so deeply rooted—same town for upwards of 400 years—that they almost cannot move—how do you turn your back on that much history? I’m somewhere in the middle. I have no desire to become a nomad—at this point, I miss my community, my friends, my home, my kids, and did I mention DAVE. However, it is clear that I have learned a great deal on this trip—stuff that I can, I think, use to enrich myself and my community. So what’s the balance? For each individual? For minority communities, which can act like strangers/nomads in a settled community?

Old City and Amichai

I’ve now visited the Old City around four times—depending on how I’m counting—and I can safely say that it is not the part of Jerusalem that moves me at all. It is full of too much history, too much kitsch, too much righteousness, too much anger, and too many tourists—of whom I was one.

One of my traveling companions (Steven, and that is his phrase, and a very civilized one at that) pointed out that it’s hard to live in a museum. That is what the Old City seems to be to me—a museum filled with many people laying their imagined dreams and meanings on real stones, but stones that are simply that. The Kotel simply makes me angry. The Haredi have taken it over and it is not a place for all Jews. Men and women did not used to be separated—that has only been true since 1961. Even in the past ten years, women have been restricted more and more from wearing tallits, from holding prayer groups. The women’s section is 1/3 or 1/4 the size of the men’s—and is hugely crowded as a result.

After the destruction of the Second Temple and the expelling of most Jews from Israel, Jews reflected on why such a devastating event—it was an event that dwarfs the Shoah, perhaps. Many turned inward, towards the sins of the Jews. In the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b, it says that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “baseless hatred” of one Jew for another. Then there are all kinds of further discussions. But when I walk down the streets of the Old City, that is what I see—each Haredi sect setting itself above the other. And I do mean the Haredi sects—for the most part the varieties of other Jews are willing to live and let live.

Now, in fairness, when I have actually asked questions, I have been given a polite response (for example, the Hassid who explained why some mezuzahs are straight—they are Sephardic and there’s no symbolism; they just are prettier that way, fit the doorpost better—was perfectly polite to me). On the other hand, there is random rudeness—the black hats that just casually brush me off the street while studiously looking aside (I learned to walk with my elbows ready to use when they tried that); the elderly fellow who passed me on the street and lectured: “beged tsnu’a” (modest clothing—I was wearing jeans and short sleeves, not too immodest for Ben Yehuda Street!)—next time I see him, I ask: “Mi meit v’mashakh oto l’hiyot Elohim?” (who died and made you God?).

But that’s not all. There are the varieties of Christians eagerly pouring through the streets still looking for the symbolic piece of the true cross. There are Arabs—Christian and Muslim—blocking your path as you navigate from one street to another.

And every time I try to get anywhere I get lost—and when another of my traveling companions leads, they get lost too. So a lot of time is spent wandering down blind alleys that may be the rats’ revenge for experimental psychology.

However, after all these complaints, there were some pretty interesting things. There was the section of wall that has been uncovered that goes back to before Second Temple. It is in an unobtrusive spot along a path through the Old City. It isn’t that far from the Kotel and is completely deserted, to the point of having a crumpled cup tossed onto it. I see little difference between these and those ancient stones.

The Kohl archeological museum was a winner—the excavation of several destroyed houses from the Roman period.

Several Sephardic synagogues that have been rebuilt in the past fifty years.

And we wandered, while looking for the Jaffa Gate, into the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. That was quite the impressive place, the variety of churches that shared the space, the variety of Christian visitors, and the variety of decoration, mostly clashing.

While we were looking for the Jaffa Gate, it turned out that there was an “incident”: an Arab snatched the gun from a Yeshiva guard (apparently a particularly obnoxious Yeshiva, not that that makes a difference), shot him in the shoulder, then ran. He was pursued by others with guns and a regular Wild West shoot up took place. The Arab was killed and around eight others (probably tourists) injured. Yeah, and we missed it all (thankfully) because we were lost in the shuk.

Here is Yehuda Amichai on tourists in Israel. I should have just put this in instead of writing—he expressed my feelings so precisely:

Tourists

Visits of condolence is all we get from them.

They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,

They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall.

And they laugh behind heavy curtains

In their hotels.
They have their pictures taken

Together with our famous dead

At Rachel's Tomb and Herzl's Tomb

And on the top of Ammunition Hill. They weep over our sweet boys
And lust over our tough girls And hang up their underwear

To dry quickly

In cool, blue bathrooms. Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David's Tower, I placed

my two heavy baskets at my side.
A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. "You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there's an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head." "But he's moving, he's moving!"
I said to myself :redemption will come only if their guide tells them, "You see that arch from the Roman period? It's not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who's bought fruit and vegetables for his family.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Yad Vashem

The Ulpan was easier to write about—an update every few days was all that I really needed to do. I mean—who really needs to hear about the conditional form? Or which verbs get “eh-eh” instead of “ee-ah”? In Jerusalem, though, the days have been so full that I have little time to update and a whole lot to throw in the updates. So here goes:

Working my way backwards—today, August 9, I went to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial.

First, a reflection on what I am about to discuss. In the case of genocide—or other horrors—is it right to compare and critique memorials to the event? Is it not enough to say that the memorial exists? That has been a serious question over the years, but fundamentally na├»ve. Every event has an interpretation, a meaning, and thus a use of some kind, simply by being made in a particular way. Neither bad nor good, simply the way things are. For me, having read extensively, if not deeply, on the subject, and having visited many Holocaust sites, when I now visit a place, I put in that context, compare it to other sites, and consider the political and social rhetoric. Which is fine when you’re talking a movie, but seems cold-blooded when the issue is: “So, how did they deal with typhoid deaths in the camps? A little too tasteful, don’t you think?” You see the problem…

The three of us—Brian, an ex-pat Brit from Brazil, who has joined us in seeing the sights, Steven, and me—got to the museum about ten and agreed to meet for lunch at one. In fact, the museum is an individual experience, something to wander through on your own, with perhaps the audio guide as a companion. (So I didn’t see Brian again—he ended up at the bookstore and from there to the bus with Steven about two, while I stayed on some time longer.) The problem is that I know the material so well that all I could do was critique it.

And here’s the critique: what the museum does extremely well is to lead the visitor through a winding inexorable path back and forth from beginning to end. The end, by the way, is a breathing-taking view of Jerusalem. Hmm, nothing political there. (There is nothing wrong, by the way, about pointing out that the state of Israel would not exist except for the world’s guilt about the Holocaust. However, I prefer the direct statement, rather than the implied.)

It also very carefully weaves the words of survivors into the overall context. I focused on the videos, partially for the Hebrew, but mostly because they were so moving in so many different ways. I think the one that hit hardest was of the partisans. Three of them—two men and a woman. They spoke of the high that fighting gave them, what it felt like to blow up a train, to burn a village. They spoke matter-of-factly, but their eyes were haunted. At the end, one man said: “You shot to kill. That is just what we had to do in that time.” He paused. “It took me years to get over it.” Haunted eyes, indeed. Simply haunted.

The whole place was filled with names, with words, with remnants of lives. Yet the film at the beginning that showed whole communities, not individuals, remains the most vivid statement of what was lost. The individuals were part of the whole and that whole is completely gone. And now I’ll make the connection: Israel does have the potential to have that vibrant variety of Jewish life and more so. I haven’t been a fan of “using” the Holocaust to justify Israel (and I still think it can be dreadfully misused), but now I think that linking the two really is the honest thing to do and no apologies for doing so.

What didn’t I like? This museum is particularly Jewish in focus—as the final view of Jerusalem shows. That is appropriate here, but because of that focus, it misses some things. For example, the Holocaust museum in the US focuses on how Hitler used many of the Jim Crow laws as models for the restrictions against Jews. Developing racial categories happened across the world—not only for Jews, but for all races. Even the Chinese used racial categories.

I don’t think I ever wrote about Nuremberg—it was the one week that didn’t make it in—but the Nuremberg Documentation Center focuses particularly on how Nuremberg was used by Hitler to invoke German pride in race and power. That museum spends a very long time showing in depth the way Hitler came to power—using PR, force, fear (of Nazis and of others), coopting and changing words, and developing common themes that built community. We’ve seen some of these techniques in the recent past in other places.

Both of these other museums do a much better job of answering the question of “why did it happen?” than does Yad Vashem. They show the common traits of society, the shared global values and worldview. Yad Vashem doesn’t say, but simply by its choices implies that the Holocaust was sui generis.

Yad Vashem is not simply the Museum, though. It is a whole site. I wandered through it for an hour or so, looking at memorials to one thing or another. Then I went into the Children’s Memorial. That is where I completely lost it and just sat there weeping. Part of it was because of who I am, part because of the memorial itself (and I’m not going to describe it—it simply has to be experienced). I have some reservations about the large Orthodox families in Jerusalem—I feel pretty overwhelmed by them, but after that, I can understand the impulse to have as many as possible. Makes me wish I’d had a few more…

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

To Jerusalem or This would never happen in the US

August 7, 2007

To Jerusalem and first days

Forgot to mention that on the last day of the Ulpan I counted the steps from my dorm room to my classroom. 21 down, then 269 up. And the reverse on the way back. Just to get from my dorm room to common room areas was 21 down and 72 up.

When I got to the bus stop on Monday morning, Steven was already there. And Meir was sitting right near him. I called him by name and he was delighted I remembered it. We talked for a few minutes then he left, assuring us he would be back. The ten o’clock departure time rolled around and no Meir. We went off to stand in line and suddenly he showed up and explained something that remains unintelligible—the other bus might be full, if not he’ll give us a ride down to Jerusalem alone. (Hmm, now it makes sense—both buses had to go to Jerusalem, but if the other one had room for more passengers, he was going to just burn down there anyway, so could give us a ride.) That is what happened. We ended up in a green Egged bus with our personal chauffeur. Meir is an INCREDIBLY nice guy. He has four kids (three girls and a boy) and he and his wife run a zimmer—I include the website (www.tzofit.co.il/id/mul-har)—and, on the basis of our ride with him, would recommend the place. He drove us by Kinneret (aka Sea of Galilee), then by the Jordan border. It was a very straight shot that brought us an amazing view of the Dead Sea on the way into Jerusalem. (Which means, by the way, that we went right through the West Bank without realizing it.) We stopped for falafel—some of the best I’ve had (I know I keep saying that and really, I mean it every time. Damn, I love the stuff. I think an alternating diet of falafel and burritos would be fine with me). What amazed me about the ride was the incredible barrenness of most of it. (This barrenness, by the way, was in contrast to the area up to and around Kinneret—banana plantations, mangos, lychees, as well as vineyards and possibly peaches.) This wasn’t American desert bare. This was absolutely nothing growing. Nothing. There is a place in Torah where God has the Israelites face one mountain and receive blessings and face another to receive curses. Rick has seen the mountains and describes the one as lush, the other as barren. These were not those mountains (not a lush one there), but the barrenness sure looked like a curse to me. I left with the question of who wants this land and why.

Meir left us at a random bus stop, where Steven hailed a cab and I loaded my stuff onto a somewhat empty bus. It wound around town for a good while, picking up passengers at most stops. Which meant that when I finally got off, I had to wrestle a suitcase, a bag, and a backpack through about twenty people. Not a happy thing. Ended up, as I said yesterday, waiting for the landlady to open the door. I finally made it in. The landlady gave me a set of keys and I asked her whether I should return them. She is recovering from surgery, so said no, Yafa would get them to her the following day.

I got settled and headed out to get some change for the bus. At the end of the street I stopped—there was the Tayelet Haas. It is a promenade and park that sits across a valley from the Old City. It is a beautiful park in and of itself, but the view of the city—just hard to beat. I’ll let the pictures speak.

Got back, showered and was comfortably writing when the phone rang. Yafa asked very nicely if I could get the key back to her landlady who was having conniptions because it hadn’t come back by seven. I trotted down the stairs and was bawled out by this woman in a walker with both feet bandaged who asked me what she would have done had she wanted to leave? About the third time I apologized for inconveniencing me, she stopped grumbling. But man, talk about serious mixed messages!

Yafa is perhaps the polar opposite of Max and Hedva. She is a tour guide and we spent about an hour talking last night. But she is extremely busy—loves her work and is, I suspect, very good at it. But she isn’t around at all and, while polite and very welcoming, is not at all interested in a personal relationship. Which is fine with me—I’d like to get to know her, but really have no need. So that was yesterday and today has worn me out—I’ll try to catch up tomorrow, on my birthday.

Forgot to mention that on the last day of the Ulpan I counted the steps from my dorm room to my classroom. 21 down, then 269 up. And the reverse on the way back. Just to get from my dorm room to common room areas was 21 down and 72 up.

When I got to the bus stop on Monday morning, Steven was already there. And Meir was sitting right near him. I called him by name and he was delighted I remembered it. We talked for a few minutes then he left, assuring us he would be back. The ten o’clock departure time rolled around and no Meir. We went off to stand in line and suddenly he showed up and explained something that remains unintelligible—the other bus might be full, if not he’ll give us a ride down to Jerusalem alone. (Hmm, now it makes sense—both buses had to go to Jerusalem, but if the other one had room for more passengers, he was going to just burn down there anyway, so could give us a ride.) That is what happened. We ended up in a green Egged bus with our personal chauffeur. Meir is an INCREDIBLY nice guy. I don't really know why he decided to adopt us, but he did. I'm deciding that all Israelis are Jewish mothers, regardless of gender or age and regardless of the gender or age of the person being mothered. It's both extremely comforting and (as in the previous post) can be almost smothering. Anyway, Meir has four kids (three girls and a boy from 20 down to 6) and he and his wife run a zimmer—I include the website (www.tzofit.co.il/id/mul-har)--and, on the basis of our ride with him, would recommend the place. He drove us by Kinneret (aka Sea of Galilee), then by the Jordan border. It was a very straight shot that brought us an amazing view of the Dead Sea on the way into Jerusalem. (Which means, by the way, that we went right through the West Bank without realizing it.) We stopped for falafel—some of the best I’ve had (I know I keep saying that and really, I mean it every time. Damn, I love the stuff. I think an alternating diet of falafel and burritos would be fine with me). What amazed me about the ride was the incredible barrenness of most of it. (This barrenness, by the way, was in contrast to the area up to and around Kinneret—banana plantations, mangos, lychees, as well as vineyards and possibly peaches.) This wasn’t American desert bare. This was absolutely nothing growing. Nothing.

There is a place in Torah where God has the Israelites face one mountain and receive blessings and face another to receive curses. Rick has seen the mountains and describes the one as lush, the other as barren. These were not those mountains (not a lush one there), but the barrenness sure looked like a curse to me. I left with the question of who wants this land and why. By the way, Meir seemed a pretty secular guy, but our conversation included a whole lot of Torah, and he knew his stuff.

Meir left us at a random bus stop, where Steven hailed a cab and I loaded my stuff onto a somewhat empty bus. It wound around town for a good while, picking up passengers at most stops. Which meant that when I finally got off, I had to wrestle a suitcase, a bag, and a backpack through about twenty people. Not a happy thing. Ended up, as I said yesterday, waiting for the landlady to open the door. I finally made it in. The landlady gave me a set of keys and I asked her whether I should return them. She is recovering from surgery, so said no, Yafa would get them to her the following day.

I got settled and headed out to get some change for the bus. At the end of the street I stopped—there was the Tayelet Haas. It is a promenade and park that sits across a valley from the Old City. It is a beautiful park in and of itself, but the view of the city—just hard to beat. I walked for two hours--from one end to the other. Got my change by buying one of the richest ice cream bars I've ever tasted. Took a picture of a young Orthodox family from New York (at their request). After walking all the way there and back, I stopped to pick up the garbage strewn around an empty garbage can--animals, perhaps--and felt enormously virtuous.

Got back, showered and was comfortably writing when the phone rang. Yafa asked very nicely if I could get the key back to her landlady who was having conniptions because it hadn’t come back by seven. I trotted down the stairs and was bawled out by this woman in a walker with both feet bandaged who asked me what she would have done had she wanted to leave? About the third time I apologized for inconveniencing me, she stopped grumbling. But man, talk about serious mixed messages!

Yafa is perhaps the polar opposite of Max and Hedva. She is a tour guide and we spent about an hour talking last night. But she is extremely busy—loves her work and is, I suspect, very good at it. But she isn’t around at all and, while polite and very welcoming, is not at all interested in a personal relationship. Which is fine with me—I’d like to get to know her, but really have no need. So that was yesterday and today has worn me out—I’ll try to catch up tomorrow, on my birthday.