Sunday, December 14, 2008

First, Steal a Lamppost

I had to admire Josh. First, he had advertised that the buses would be leaving at 10:30AM; now he was sending all the participants an e-mail saying he wanted everyone there twenty minutes early, so he could collect money and get everyone onboard to leave on time. Once a yekke, always a yekke! At any rate, Barbara and I took him at his word, and we left our house especially early so we could get the bus from Maale Adumim first to the Central Bus Station and then another bus to the Inbal Hotel.
It was the second day of Chol Hamoed. If I had forgotten that this was “duchaning day,” when tens of thousands of Jews would converge at the Kotel to hear the priestly blessing recited by thousands of Cohanim, I would surely have remembered when I saw the fleet of #1 buses, the one that goes to our holy site, lined up opposite the Tachana Mercazit, with passengers scrambling to get aboard. Whenever I think about this twice yearly celebration, I remember back to our experience exactly 28 years ago when we were at the Kotel. To be more precise, we were trying to leave the Kotel after the Birchat Hacohanim. It wasn’t quite as crowded then as it is these days, but still, there were thousands of people all trying to get on a #1 bus. As many of you know, Israelis are not noted for their ability to form a line, especially to get on a bus. But to make it worse, it never occurred to the drivers taking people from the Kotel to stop their vehicles at any one designated spot. So no matter where you were standing, it was the wrong place to get on the next bus. You can imagine the chaos that was ensuing. Here it was, only a few minutes after the “shalom,” the final word of the final blessing had been amplified around these ancient walls, and a small scale riot was about to break out. Finally, we were about to board a bus, and there was a woman standing behind Barbara who was going to push her way onto that bus, come hell or high water. She began shoving Barbara as hard as she could. The problem was that my wife was standing directly behind a small boy, and this woman was inadvertently causing Barbara to crush this child. After remonstrating with this woman several times, Barbara, in complete frustration, turned around and smashed her fist on top of this woman’s head, almost knocking her sheitel off. The woman finally stopped pushing and started shrieking, “She hit me, she hit me” to everyone within earshot – several thousand people. I will never forget the bus ride back. Barbara was sitting and pretending that she didn’t understand what the woman was saying, and I was pretending that I had never seen either of these women before.
That was then. Today I would be playing hooky from my priestly responsibilities and heading to Sderot, the town which has come to symbolize the dangers facing Israel today and the fortitude of its residents. We got to the Inbal Hotel real early, giving us an opportunity to go inside, use the facilities and look around. For those of you who don’t know, the Inbal is one of the swankiest hotels in Jerusalem, definitely out of our league – except to use the bathrooms. It has an enormous dining area in the center of the lobby which must have some sort of retractable roof, because it had been turned into a very, very large sukkah. There were all these families, parents with two, three, or four children having breakfast in the hotel before starting their day of sightseeing. And all I could think of at that moment was how much it would cost for a family of six just to have breakfast at the Inbal Hotel, and what percentage of our weekly food bill that would be; and how nice it would be to have that kind of discretionary income. And perhaps how different Israel would seem from the respective vantage points of a posh lobby in downtown Talbieh and a yeshiva in hunkered-down Sderot. For it was the latter which was sponsoring our tour, officially the Max & Ruth Schwartz Hesder Yeshiva of Sderot (a hesder yeshiva is an institution in which for five years young men combine learning and serving in the Israeli army).
Soon we joined the growing number of people in front of the hotel, all waiting patiently to board their bus to somewhere. Josh was right; it took at least twenty minutes for him to gather all the Sderot people together, collect our money, and get us all on the appropriate buses. It turned out that the guide for our bus was someone we had met before in the home of friends in Beit Shemesh. Win and his wife live in Beit Shemesh half of the year and in NYC half of the year, when they are not globe-trotting and photographing. They had recently been in India and had together taken 20,000 digital images (the equivalent of almost seven hundred rolls of film), some of which we had the opportunity to see this past summer on a Shabbat afternoon in June. Win had previously been to the yeshiva and was so impressed with their efforts that he spends a considerable amount of time doing volunteer work for them, talking, writing, and, of course, photographing.
Since we arrived here last summer, there has been a lot of activity in support of Sderot. For example, our friend Jeff was one of many to organize a shopping trip there to support the local merchants. Someone here in Maale Adumim for a while had arranged to have challot and other baked goods sent here every Friday. But we were always doing something else to take one of these trips, and, frankly, I didn’t care much for the challah. So we never really got involved in the Support Sderot campaign or thought that much about it. Thus, the first thing I needed to do was get up to speed about Sderot, to realize that it was more than just a landing place for the Kassam rockets which have been falling for over seven years. Like a lot of other communities in Israel, this one began as a development town in the early 1950’s, providing a permanent place to live for Jews who fled from Asia and North Africa and had previously been living in tents in refugee camps elsewhere in Israel. There had been almost 20,000 residents before the Kassams began to rain; no one has a handle on exactly how many people left and what the population is today.
As we neared the town, Win pointed out that Sderot has two main attractions: the Osem plant (a very large manufacturer of food), just off the road, still operational and the largest single employer in the area, and our hosts at the yeshiva (to be inclusive, I should also mention Sapir College, an academic institution with a highly regarded program in film making, which has been in the news because it too has been the target of rocket attacks and because of a dispute involving an otherwise qualified Arab film maker who allegedly refused to allow a student doing reserve duty to come to class wearing his IDF uniform). The first thing noticed as we entered the town was that, just as in most other Israeli communities, there were hundreds of campaign posters for a host of candidates in the local elections on November 11 (many of them in Russian – testament to an ubiquitous presence in The Land). Believe it or not, there was a food festival going on in downtown Sderot when we arrived; the main road into town was cordoned off and we had to go around the back way to get to the yeshiva. One might have expected to see a town reduced to a pile of rubble; but at first glance Sderot did not look much different from a number of other not-so-upscale towns we have visited – except for the existence of a bomb shelter next to every bus stop. The damage done to the community was in many ways more subtle. We were supposed to meet some of the local residents and hear some firsthand accounts of living under the constant threat of attack when you have fifteen seconds to find shelter when the sirens go off and the long term psychological damage caused by living under such conditions. However, there just wasn’t time for such interviews in our busy schedule. Nor did we speak with any of the students from the yeshiva either because, being Chol Hamoed, they were all away. But we did get a tour of the facilities and an idea of why this facility is so special.
To understand anything about this hesder yeshiva, it must be placed in context. It is October, 2008 (in our secular calendar), a point in time which everyone understands is a temporary lull in the fighting with Hamas. The same “everyone” is aware that Hamas is using this time-out to improve their rocketry, increase their fighting strength, build tunnels to infiltrate our side of the border, and in general prepare for the next round of fighting in their on-going effort to drive us out of our homeland. What the IDF is doing is uncertain – and whatever it is should be rightfully cloaked in a veil of secrecy. But what the town and the yeshiva are doing is public knowledge: they are all digging in, increasing and improving their fortification. The townspeople, by and large, are not leaving. The yeshiva definitely is not leaving, and that was the main point of the tour.
There are about five hundred young men currently learning at this facility in Sderot. While hundreds have already graduated, only a few have ever left because of the fighting. To make it possible for the school to continue to grow and thrive, they are, building by building, fortifying every nook and cranny: the dormitories, the beit midrash (house of study), and every other structure on the campus, in a way which will be both safe (according to the regulations of the Homefront Command) and esthetically pleasing. They are, as I said, not leaving; on the contrary, the yeshiva is expanding.
After stopping for a snack in the dining hall, looking at the existing dormitories and the new ones under construction, we headed over to the new beit midrash, which is being used as it is being built. We davened mincha there, and then we ascended to the roof, two stories up. This is, I believe, the highest point, not only in Sderot, but in the Western Negev. On one side you can see across the central plains all the way to the hills of Hebron. On the other side, you can see Gaza. We were asked to notice a large hill not too far away; from over that hill have come the kassams. It reminded me of the big empty hill near us in E-1, the “contested” area to the west of us in Maale Adumim. Place a rocket launcher on top of or behind that hill or any hill, and the hostile forces that surround us would be in control. It is that simple.
Looking down and around from on top of the roof, you realize fairly quickly that the yeshiva is right in the center of the town. Of course, that is no accident; the whole purpose of this institution is to be part of the community. Now you could say that about most hesder yeshivot. But here, they take that idea to the next level. Not only do these “yeshiva bochers” serve in the army, they drive the local Magen David Adom ambulances and form an emergency response team. They have formed another “army,” dedicated to performing chessed: bringing food for Shabbat, giving gifts to children and emotional support to adults, creating a climate of caring and concern. The boys dance through the streets on Yom Haatzmaut; last Simchat Torah, students from throughout the country came to Sderot to participate, strengthening the spirits of the entire community. Perhaps the best way to describe what is going in Sderot is found in a publication which the yeshiva distributes with the following caption: “A World of Chessed Will Be Created.”
Somehow, in this world filled with confusion and animosity, a simple message is going out: “Torah is the light of the world. It is not there to be a ladder for one’s own success, a vehicle to show how smart or important one is, a bludgeon to hammer others into submission, a means to show that some of us are different, better, or more moral than the rest of us. It is to share G-d’s glory with anyone who hasn’t noticed it until now; and to do that sharing is the reason why some of us were put upon this Earth.” (Note: these are my words, not the yeshiva’s.) The students who learn at this institution look like thousands of other typical Israeli young men who will go to school and ultimately to the IDF. What distinguishes them is their desire to serve and to inspire: to share their learning with elderly men, to befriend and serve as role models for adolescent boys, to join local families at their Shabbat tables. And when they graduate from the yeshiva, they do not run away; many of the young men begin their married life in downtown Sderot.
How can you quantify the value of all this? How can anyone begin to assess the importance of this institution to the survival of this town? There are no delicate instruments to measure the effect of an act of kindness on one’s heart or how one’s resolve has been strengthened by an act of valor. But, as the former mayor expressed it, “It is hard to imagine Sderot without this dynamic young force.” Here is a Jewish response, a Zionist response, a Torah response to the forces that are hell bent on annihilating us.
None of these activities or even the continued existence of a yeshiva in a war zone could have happened without the vision and leadership of Rav David Fendel, the American born Rosh Yeshiva who discusses (and embodies) what Maimonides describes as a ruach Hashem, a special spirit of G-d, which has enabled Jewish people throughout the generations to perform acts of extreme heroism. Talk about a “man with a plan.” His (Rav Fendel’s, not the Rambam’s, although I am sure the latter would approve) intention is to turn the beleaguered “development” town of Sderot into a center for Jewish learning and culture in the Western Negev. Not content with only one program, six years ago the yeshiva opened a satellite center to accommodate students with limited backgrounds from Southern communities; this program, using former students as instructors and role models, has grown from eight to one hundred twenty students. Following this model, the yeshiva has now opened a similar program in Kiryat Gat, a community of 50,000 a half hour away. Both of these institutions focus on preparing young men spiritually and emotionally for a regular stint in the IDF.
Perhaps the most ambitious project is the construction, now underway, of the Jewish Identity Center in Sderot, a cultural and pedagogical center which will serve in a number of capacities: audio-visual programs for students; a resource center for teachers; a place where graduates can continue their studies and obtain an academic degree. I am certain that should we revisit Sderot a few years hence, we will find some additional programs up their sleeve (Can one say that a yeshiva has a sleeve?). But more fundamentally, many hundreds of young men will have had an amazing yeshiva education and will spend their lives influencing for the good untold numbers of others in ways too subtle and diverse to consider.
After a much needed break for lunch, we were escorted on a shortened tour of the town. Although, as I mentioned, we were not able to meet any of the residents to hear their first-hand accounts of life in a war zone, we did hear some memorable stories of miracles in Sderot, the kind of remarkable incidents which have been happening in The Land for the last sixty years. When you hear one story about this person or this group of people trying to seek shelter from a kassam attack and somehow being prevented – perhaps by a door which is always open mysteriously being locked – from going to the one place they believe will be safe, whereupon it is precisely that place where the rocket lands, perhaps you can reasonably say, “It’s a coincidence.” But when you hear variations on this theme which have occurred over and over again: a kassam landing in the next room six or eight feet away and no one is injured: a rocket lodges in the ceiling between two floors and never explodes; at some point, even the most committed rationalist would have to calculate the odds against such a series of events re-occurring and would have to wonder if maybe – just maybe – there is something (gasp!) super-natural, non-rational, otherwise unfathomable, going on to explain this incredible safety net.
But it was time to confront “the belly of the beast.” For this we were taken to the local police station, which has become de facto a kassam museum, a showcase for thousands of rockets which have landed in Sderot and neighboring areas. (Actually, this is only part of the treasure trove; many thousands of other rockets have been discarded because there was simply no place to store them.) A volunteer police officer explained to us how a rocket of this type is constructed. I immediately thought of the recipe for chicken soup from a fictitious Hungarian Cook Book: “Step 1) Steal a chicken.” A kassam rocket is made using a hollow, cylindrical tube, about four inches in diameter. Where would one find such a tube? A street sign, a lamppost, or something similar. An Arab terrorist would simply remove such an object from its base (preferably from a Jewish source, as in the following true story: the residents of a nearby kibbutz woke one day to discover that all the street signs nearby were missing. They were soon “returned” when a series of rockets landed nearby, still retaining the original inscriptions on them.) However, if you can’t steal a sign from a Jew, take one of your own from Gaza. If you are contemplating sending your child laden with explosives to kill as many Jews as possible, you probably don’t need traffic lights. One point of interest: just as American Indian tribes would create distinctive markings on their arrows, each Arab terrorist organization has a slightly different way of making the tail of their rockets, so we should know exactly who our attackers are. For weeks after, every time I would see any similar object on the streets of Maale Adumim, I would think of its potential as a weapon of destruction, something to blow up our apartment.
So that our tiyul shouldn’t end on a “downer,” our last stop was the main shopping area, so we could do our part in improving the local economy. Nobody was going to buy a refrigerator and have it shipped to Jerusalem or wherever, and there wasn’t time to go grocery shopping in one of the local superrrrrrrrrrs, but our tour-mates did spread out and buy a few things. Barbara went to one of the chain drug stores, and I walked around the mall and checked out the shops on the adjacent streets, which went on for several blocks, all the way to where the food festival was going on. I was amazed at how many shops there were in this relatively small town (a little more than half the size of Maale Adumim). Then something which had been mentioned earlier in the day began to make sense. Sderot is not an isolated town; there are any number of small kibbutzim and other communities nearby. No doubt, people from the surrounding parts come here to shop. To put it simply, the destruction of Sderot would have a devastating effect on the economy and morale of the entire Western Negev. You may, if you wish, take that thought a step further. If I hadn’t until fully comprehended the importance of this hesder yeshiva as the moral backbone of the Jewish resistance to Arab terror, I did now.
A few weeks later, I met one of my buddies on the bus, and I began to describe our tiyul and my admiration for Rav Fendel and his bochrim. My friend asked me if there were any Americans at this yeshiva. I looked at him, he looked at me, and we simultaneously realized how absurd this question was. No, there were no American students on a one year program, or any program, in Sderot – or the “Muslim Quarter” of The Old City, or any number of other places we could think of. Maybe that, in a nutshell, summarizes one of the differences between the Israeli experience and that of the Exile. If G-d gives me the strength, I will elaborate on this point – and infuriate some of my audience – when I discuss the General Assembly in my next article.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

:Daddy, they're punishing the paintings!"

There isn’t much to do at 4AM except let your mind wander. Of course you might wonder, why is this man awake at 4AM? For someone of a certain age, the first answer is “bladder.” But there is an additional reason. Younger people may have children to keep them up; we have Mimi the geriatric cat who is always awake at 4AM. Because she has lost a good part of her hearing, she no longer goes meow; she shrieks like a banshee. What is bothering her?, you ask. It could be that her food bowl is empty or that she is not pleased with what remains; she might have made a mess next to her litter box and is offended by the smell; she might have knocked over one of her three water dishes and needs to have it refilled; possibly she is announcing that she is about to upchuck a hair ball under our bed; perhaps she wants to curl up on Barbara’s stomach but my wife is sleeping on her side. At any rate, our cat is standing on my pillow, howling in my ear. Why? Go ask her. As I lie there, trying to go back to sleep, I have time to think about things, perhaps to consider what I would be writing next for my eager readers. And so on this one night I began to focus on The Underground Museum.

My first thought a year or so ago when Barbara had suggested that we visit this place was a visit to the bowels of the earth. Now it occurred to me that it also could have been an exhibit about the history of the London subway system, which is called “The Underground.” There is such a museum devoted to the NYC system in Brooklyn. I seem to remember Barbara telling me that she had been there. I never was. Haval (it’s a pity). There wasn’t so much reason for me to have gone there; I grew up in New York and I know I rode many of the subway cars that are on display. By the end of WW II, my mother was already taking my brother and me on the D train; we were still small enough to walk under the turnstile, meaning my mother didn’t have to pay the five cent fare (I come by my frugality naturally). My brother and I would stand in the front of the first car, looking through the big window next to the motorman, and pretend we were driving the train. The subway cars of that day had wicker seats and large ceiling fans – no air conditioning. The irony of the New York subway museum is that much of the system was never underground. Riding on the 3rd Ave El was like being in a living museum; the platforms and the cars were relics from the beginning of the 20th century, waiting to be torn down or sold as scrap metal. In some places, the tracks were laid directly opposite the windows of tenement buildings, sometimes so close that you could see a man in his undershirt brushing his teeth. We would ride down to 14th St, and on our way back, our final destination would invariably be a large coffee shop which had a conveyor belt which carried donuts from the back of the establishment all the way around to the display window in the front. In my whole life, I have never come across anything remotely as fascinating as that never-ending stream of donuts marching on a mechanical belt seemed to me when I was eight years old……

Back to a more scary and prosaic reality. Our museum in Jerusalem serves a testament and memorial to the Jewish underground, those groups (the mainstream Haganah and two other more extreme factions, The Irgun and the Lehi [The Stern Gang]) who defended Jewish communities from Arab attacks and opposed the efforts of the British to restrict immigration during the British Mandate. Barbara and I had visited this place before, built originally 150 years ago as a hospice for female Russian pilgrims to The Holy Land, and after 1917 served as a British prison. Here you can see the actual cells in which political prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, the infirmary where a doctor would dispense brightly colored placebos, the courtyard into which the prisoners would be allowed for an hour of exercise a day, the office of the High Commander, with furniture and equipment hurriedly left behind in 1948 when the Mandate ended. In one room there is a memorial with photographs and information about these brave men who died fighting to save Jewish lives.

But now this somber reminder of an heroic past would serve as the venue for a Jerusalem Art festival; and this would be our next scheduled stop on our Hag Hamoed itinerary. Needless to say, once we returned to Jerusalem from Beit Shemesh, we needed additional sustenance before doing anything else. And so we walked, as we have done so many times, up and Rehov Yaffa, considering which of the many local establishments we would patronize – all of them, it goes without saying, kosher, and all of them this time of year having a sukkah in the front or side – so that for entire blocks the sidewalks are festooned with festive booths. Any time I can, I steer people to the Coffee Bean, probably the only kosher version of an international chain. Why? First of all, they are fairly inexpensive (did you expect any other ‘reason number 1’?), most of the day serving a “businessman’s lunch” – a very popular item in almost every Israeli restaurant – in this case, half of a large sandwich and a cup of cappuccino or good tea for twenty shekels. You can sit at a table for hours on end without anybody bothering you; you can utilize their wireless internet connections; and people (lots of American students) do just that: sit for hours with their laptops, doing business, writing papers, talking long distance with their VOIP connections. And third, they have clean bathrooms – which I have availed myself of even when I wasn’t otherwise patronizing the place. Needless to say, we had our coffee there outside in their sukkah (number three for the day) – which I admit had very schvach schach – and then headed over to the Russian compound to the art show at the Underground Museum.

It just goes to show: how you can take something and turn it into something completely different. Normally, you would not use the word “cheerful” to describe a testament to brave men long gone and barely remembered (and the history of the formation of the State is replete with such people). But now the corridors, the rooms, he courtyard was filled with art from Israeli galleries. Some of these were first rate galleries with carefully selected collections: acknowledged first rank Israeli artists like Reuven Rubin and Nachman Gutman, a few small canvases by Utrillo or Pisarro, interesting work by “emerging” Israeli artists; then there were lesser galleries with more of a hodgepodge, whatever they managed to get their hands on; there was plenty of kitch on display: by-the-numbers paintings of bearded men dancing with torah scrolls, etc. There were a number of individual artists displaying their wares, some good, some not so. At one point, Natania came over to me and said to me, “Daddy, they’re punishing the paintings.” Sure enough, someone had had the most out-of-the-box idea: displaying paintings behind the barred windows of the solitary confinement cells (which contain some thin bedding on the stone floor and a chamber pot). Effective, but very disconcerting. Then it occurred to me. Many of the prisoners incarcerated and executed in this jail were from the Lehi, (a Hebrew acronym for ‘Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), the smallest, most extreme and controversial of the groups opposing the Mandate, called by the British ‘The Stern Gang’ after its leader, Avraham Stern. Here in these halls more than sixty years after Jewish men were hung in the courtyard, the Stern gallery was hanging its wares. If that’s not a kick in the pants, an eyeful of irony, I don’t know what is.

After having had breakfast in Yehudah and Arleen’s sukkah, refreshments in a sukkah in Beit Shemesh, coffee on Rehov Yaffa, the only thing left to do was have dinner. Natania was eager to try a new sushi joint on a nearby street called Shlomzion Hamalka, where again we found room in their sukkah. This place was “fancy” (defined as using table cloths), and the food was pretty good – although no better than at some of the “less fancy” places we had frequented. We had a leisurely meal; and when we left, there was suddenly a huge line of people waiting to get it. We started to walk back to Yaffa to get a bus to another bus to get us back to Maale Adumim (a little bit east of you-know-where). Every food establishment along the way worthy of the name was packed, with people waiting to get in. Then it occurred to me: I was hearing an awful lot of English. Yes! That was it! All the yeshiva and seminary kids here for the year, all the families here on vacation, they were free to go. Free to join the rest of Israel. Free to find a restaurant – because they hadn’t eaten enough over the last two days. Thee synagogues and hotels were emptying out. Hag Hamoed was over!

The next day, we would be visiting Sderot on a tiyul organized by the yeshiva there. But that’s for next time.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hag Hamoed, or a Tale of Four Sukkas

“Hag Hamoed,” that’s what I am going to call it from now on: the second day of Sukkot, which is still Hag (the holiday) for you laggards in Exile and Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days for those of us who have successfully made it to The Land. By 9AM of that day, here a little bit east of Yerushalayim, you can see teenagers and adults getting ready, backpacks prepared, cars and buses being loaded, as a huge part of the nation prepares to celebrate our return by walking and riding the length and breadth of the country during these glorious days. But we in the Anglo community have a problem; to wit, you. Many of our English speaking friends and neighbors are hosting family and friends from back where they came from; the hotels in Jerusalem are packed with tourists. And all of these unfortunate folks are required to repeat the prayers and restrictions of The Hag for a second day. So “us natives” are, in effect, waiting for the rest of you to get done with your business so that we can get going; there will be no organized tiyulim for the Anglo community until the following day. It’s like a family in New Jersey having to delay its summer vacation until their son finishes summer school to make up the courses he flunked during the regular school term.
No matter, there is plenty for us to do on this Hag Hamoed. We are expected in Jerusalem at 10AM to visit Yehudah and Arleen, whom Barbara has known forever. When Barbara’s family moved to Rochester when she was thirteen, the only Jewish family on Goodman St. was the Osbands. Helen, may her memory be a blessing, and Les, who is now in an assisted living residence in Baltimore, had three children. Arleen was the oldest child; Barbara went to Monroe H.S. with the Leah; the youngest was Michael, an extremely brilliant and gifted boy who became a renowned pediatric oncologist, later tragically succumbing to cancer himself.
The first plane that left Israel after the 1967 war had among its passengers Rabbi Ohad and Bracha Habshush who arrived in Rochester just in time for the wedding of their oldest son Yehuda to Arleen. As it happens, Barbara had planned to go to Israel shortly thereafter, and she spent a week in the very (very!) cramped Habshush apartment in the Yeminite neighborhood near Mea Shearim – in which then lived their very large family – with a kitchen as big as a mid-sized American bathroom. From then on, Barbara became the ninth Habshush child, the only one with blue eyes and rosy cheeks. Rabbi Habshush is long deceased, but Bracha is going strong, living in Efrat, and meticulously tracking in a notebook the birthdays of her perhaps forty grandchildren and a developing army of great-grandchildren.
The apartment in which Arleen and Yehuda live in the Artzei HaBirah neighborhood is the same one they lived in when we came to Israel in 1980 (I always think of how many homes and communities Barbara and I have lived in since then). Their four children are grown, out of the house, and two of them are married with their own children. Some of the pictures on the wall are different; otherwise, the apartment seems exactly the same as when I first saw it in 1980. The neighborhood, though, has changed; it has gone from being a poor, mixed, working class neighborhood to an overwhelmingly Haredi one. I know the area well. When Barbara, Natania, and I were in Jerusalem in 2004 we rented an apartment a five minute walk away. I always marveled at the residents’ total disregard for the garden areas and the yards around the buildings. I wondered if they believed that the empty pizza boxes strewn around would grow into pizza trees, the plastic cups into soda bushes, or, and this would truly be a miracle, the candy wrappers into Torah scrolls. Otherwise, I can find no satisfactory explanation for the obstinate refusal to pick up any refuse anywhere in the area and a total aversion to any living plant life that did not precede the current occupants’ arrival on the scene.
The bus schedule from Maale Adumim always prevents us from arriving anywhere exactly on time; we have to be either early or late. So we arrived in plenty of time to help Arleen set up for her brunch in the sukkah, an annual event commemorating the yahrzeit of her mother, to which she invites a many people as she can who knew Helen Osband from the old days in Rochester (making Barbara a prime suspect). Arleen, being Arleen, was certain that everyone would arrive at 10AM and we would be done by 11AM, at which point she could return the borrowed plastic chairs which were needed by their real owners by 11:30. (Needless to say, her family and friends did not arrive en masse at 10, and, of course, we were not finished at 11.) By 10:30, we went out through a bedroom to their small balcony on which there was sukkah big enough for about eight people to squeeze in (the women, who are not obligated to eat in a sukkah, stayed inside – there just wasn’t enough room). We then returned inside back to the table in their small dining nook, and we began taking turns reviewing the sections of the Mishnah which relate building a sukkah, taking turns reading each section. (A sukkah more than twenty cubits high is invalid…) I must admire the patience of the Habshush clan for putting up with me; I’m sure that any of their children, third grade and up, could read with greater agility, but they included me and allowed me to take my turn. Guests kept arriving, and at this point David Glazer, the son of our dear friends Jeff and June, came in with his wife, Yardaena, and her mother, Barbara, the widow of Michael Osband. The three of them sat down at the table and joined in the learning. Now in this kind of environment, the men will sit around and do the learning, while the women are usually involved in other things. But I imagine that everyone present understood and expected that these two women would join in; they were certainly knowledgeable enough.
I still have fond memories of traveling up to the Maimonedes School in Brookline, Massachussets so many years ago for Yardaena’s bat mitvah celebration, for which she and her father – then very much alive and full of energy – had spent an entire year learning a large section of The Mishna – so that it wasn’t just a party, but a Siyum (a celebration at the completion of a section of learning.) Yaerdena blossomed into an amazing student like her father and began teaching Judaic Studies (she gave a shiur at Beth Aaron one Shavuot morning a few years ago). And in the “it’s-not-just-a-small-world-but-a-broom-closet” department, I remember the look on our friend Heshy’s face. We had invited him and his wife Chana-Chaya to our home in Teaneck many times for Shabbat meals. On this one occasion, when we passed out the “benchers” (booklets which include prayers after one has eaten, which are often given out at events with the names of the honorees), he asked in astonishment, “Where did you get this?” He showed us the bencher which he had selected seemingly at random from a large stack. It read “Bat Mitzvah of Yardeana Batya Osband, Rosh Chodesh Tamuz 5747” (that’s 22 years ago). “We know the family, and we were there.” “So was I” said Heshie. Turns out he went to school with Michael. I know that most of us have similar tales of amazing connections, but it doesn’t take away the shock and awe every time you hear such a story.
But take it one step further: one century ago, more or less, three families were part of a mass migration which would move hundreds of thousands of Jews great distances from the cities, towns, and villages where they had lived for centuries. The Habshush clan was part of a movement of Yeminite Jews who somehow, with great difficulty and through great danger, made their way from Saana, the capital city, to Jerusalem. A second family, the Osbands (along with the Marzel family) would come to Rochester, NY. A third family would wind up in Fort Worth, Texas with their family name changed to “Glazer.” It would seem to require the talent of a very gifted novelist to construct a plot intricate enough to unite these families who had been geographically so distant. Yet, we were all sitting around a table in Jerusalem: a Glazer and an Osband having married and being related by another marriage to the Habshushes, three families which we had met in completely different contexts, in different times and different places. And we were there to share memories of Helen Osband, one of the truly nicest women who ever walked the face of the earth.
The party was still going on, but we had to leave. We had arranged to meet Natania at a bus stop on a street corner to get the #415 bus to Beit Shemesh, our next destination, and we didn’t want to keep her waiting.
We have friends from our days in Passaic who a number of years ago bought an apartment “on paper” (in other words, construction hadn’t begun; you were just shown the floor plan). To our amazement, we received an e-mail from them shortly before Sukkot. Their home was now finished, and they were inviting all their friends in The Land to join them for a hannukat habayit (house warming). From the wording of their e-mail, that it would be the second day of the holiday for them, we inferred (correctly) that they have not yet made aliyah. Still, a residence in The Land is noteworthy, and we would be happy to see them under any circumstances. In keeping with our pattern, we were the first to arrive, and so we had time to take a house tour and catch up with each other’s stories. Both of their kids are still in college, and they do not expect to be able to live here permanently for another few years. But now they have a place of their own to come to even before that Big Day comes! Not yet fully furnished, but livable – with many nice neighbors. So it would be fair to say that they were excited. Both of their children were with them, and each child had three or four friends staying with them. So their two story apartment, planned to satisfy the demands of the American Jewish community, looked like a large dormitory. No matter.
Their sukkah was on a patio outside the “salon,” facing a very large New Jersey sized back yard (just parched bare dirt for now.) There was plenty of nosh and several bottles: a few single malts and the original Jack Daniels (not the inexpensive black label stuff they used to serve at kiddushes back in Passaic). I picked up a small glass, sat down in the sukkah (with appropriate blessings), and began to sample the various whiskeys and whiskies before me. Sadly, as people began to come in, nobody, nobody, sat down and joined me for a wee drop. This is almost unheard of, but true.
But, as I was sitting in the sukkah and looking out at the street beyond the yard, I heard the following cautionary tale. We have already discussed “be careful what you wish for” and my corollary “be careful what you complain about.” I now realize that there is a third element to this: “be careful what you worry about.” The family in question was considering buying a home in The Land and was looking at an apartment in Modiin. From the description we were given, it seemed like a really nice place. But the realtor they were using had other ideas (it’s called “steering,” common among realtors world-wide, but especially prevalent here in The Land where telling somebody else what they should be doing is a national pastime). She began explaining that the particular neighborhood in Modiin was “mixed” (that is, “religious,” traditional, and secular people living in close proximity) and you couldn’t tell who your neighbors would be, and they might make noise on Shabbat. Before she was finished, she had painted a dire picture of a busload of Hilonim (secular Jews) moving in downstairs from them who would have loud parties from Friday night all through Shabbat. She frightened them out of Modiin and into purchasing something in this area of Beit Shemesh. Across that very street we could see from the sukkah was another housing development that had just been completed. Originally, it was built for a group of French Jews who were making aliyah, but at the last minute, the project was bought out, and now the occupants are………….extreme Haredim, hostile Mea Shearim-type expats who do not like their new neighbors or any other Jews who do not look, think, or act like them. “We were so worried about who our neighbors would be, and now we’re the goyim.” Just goes to show. No matter how “religious” you think you are, there is always someone else who thinks that you are a dog-in-the-street. And Moshiach is waiting patiently in the wings……..
It was time to leave sukkah #2 and head back to Jerusalem, where we would find out what happens when paintings misbehave.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Elmer Among The Sheltering Palms

(chorus of “Down Among The Sheltering Palms,”
Music by Abe Olman, Lyrics by James Brockman, 1914)

One of the fun things I noticed right before Sukkot was an article in the Jerusalem Post in which the writer considered inviting his own ushpizin into his sukkah. Now the ushpizin, the “guests” we invite, one by one, into our sukkahs are in our tradition, seven biblical heroes from Avraham Avinu to King David (although I assume in today’s world, many people think to invite some biblical women as well). But suppose you could make up your own laundry list of characters to invite? The writer in question, cheating a bit by having ten people on his list, got a little creative. He “invited” Molly Picon, the Yiddish actress, Levi Strauss, who basically “invented” dungarees, and, most intriguingly, Lippman Pike, one of the first professional baseball players, who flourished in the 1880’s, long before Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax.
By the time the holiday came around, our sukkah was ready to host our guests. Our cotton panels, slightly shrunken from a trip through our clothes dryer, were fitted onto the plastic poles with only one small rip in the cotton; our bamboo mat was rolled out for schach (no need for branches from the sheltering palms); I had purchased a few more decorations (imitation fruit purchased on one of my excursions onto Malchei Yisrael). We even had a real light. Barbara had gone into our local Ace Hardware in search of the simple one bulb holders that we had always used in The States. All they had at Ace was a much more elaborate florescent fixture which came without any way of hanging it and without any wiring. Not to worry. Buy it and bring it over to the next counter to the young Russian woman who was spending her day wiring these lamps for use in sukkahs. Then it took us several hours more to figure out a method of attaching it to our sukkah, but we finally got it up. The table and chairs were set up, and we were indeed ready.
For our first guests, we invited a family who had made aliyah only a few months before. This family’s klita (absorption) has been a lot more complicated than ours, which was, in hindsight, a piece of cake. All of the 2008 olim faced one serious obstacle, a port strike which meant that all of the lifts were left to languish somewhere in Turkey until the Israeli dock workers agreed to resume their labors. This family also had a problem with their son’s education. The first school they enrolled him in, while perfect on paper, proved to be a disaster in practice, and it took a month of effort for the local officials to allow them to transfer him to another school (both of which are within walking distance of their apartment, by the way) where he is now doing fine. Then there was their preparation for Sukkot. Last year, when I went to the concession in front of Ace Hardware, they had everything I needed; my only problem was finding a monit with a roof rack so I could cart it home from the Mall. This year, when Michael ordered a sukkah, they didn’t have any bamboo mats on hand. Soon. Well, as does happen here with some frequency, “soon” morphed into “never.” Plus, Michael had tried to order a lulav and etrog from one of the local synagogues, but because of some snafu, he never got it. So there they were a day before the Yomtov, species-less and schach-less, putting out frantic e-mails to the community. Fortunately, they have a wonderful landlady, a veteran Maale Adumimer, who took it upon herself to drive around town and get them everything they needed. So they were a little frazzled from all of these difficulties. Hence I figured that Michael deserved to meet and greet my long-time acquaintance, Elmer.
Elmer T. Lee has been making a mighty tasty single barrel sour mash “for over fifty years” somewhere in Kentucky. I had discovered that Michael, like me, is ambidextrous: that is, he drinks both Scotch and bourbon (although I am also very fond of Irish whiskey, but I still only am allowed two hands). When Barbara went back to The States to visit her mom and to hang out for a week in Teaneck, we all gave her a shopping list. Mine was fairly short: a few items of clothing and a bottle of bourbon, listing a few possible brands. Sure enough, Barbara returned with a bottle of Elmer’s carefully wrapped with her socks in a suitcase. You may inquire: why do you have to go back to Teaneck to buy some booze? Fair question. One, the selection in New Jersey is more extensive than it is here. Two, it’s a matter of price, which is always a matter of some interest to me. While the cost of Israeli wine is a lot less here, the cost of most hard stuff is much, much more. I saw in an article a few months ago that the British government was protesting the unfair tax imposed here on Scotch whisky. (I should note that in Dublin or Louisville it’s “whiskey,” while in Glasgow it’s “whisky.” I have no idea why.) The response of the Israeli government, as is often the case, made us seem like a bunch of blithering idiots. They mumbled something about taxing whiskey based upon its alcohol content. Of course, you can get rot-gut vodka here basically for the same price as soft drinks. (That’s because there are a million Russians here, and no one is going to mess with their vodka. When we have a million Anglos here, we will have similar clout.) Towards the bottom of the article, I noticed the following amazing statistic. Three quarters of the whiskey purchased here comes from the duty-free shops at the airport. And that’s only what can be quantified. There’s no way to count the number of bottles of booze that enter our Ancestral Homeland legally and illegally from The States, or more likely, England(where it’s a lot cheaper than the duty-free shops). Can you find a better illustration of the haven’t-got-a-clue-ness of our government? They have an astronomical tax on a product, but they collect it on perhaps one fifth of the items purchased. So the only individuals they collect it from are those too poor to travel, too much of a freier to notice, or too drunk to care. I could swear that the l’chaims we made with Elmer’s fine brew tasted even better because of its tax-free status.
Anyway, we had the fine meal which Natania and I prepared, and we sat for quite a while, enjoying the rapidly cooling evening air. Our Shabbat and Yom Tov table is more likely to involve brilliant conversation rather than vocalizing; but on this night, our various neighbors more than made up for it. Our immediate neighbors, the ones who share the building with us, are Russians, and from them, sounds of the Volga enhanced by vodka wafted our way. On the other side of us lives a Moroccan family, long time residents of our town. The mother, Tzippi, is very friendly and often brings us samples of her excellent cooking and occasional leftovers (her family does not like to eat reheated meals; remember that there was a time when most people here in The Land did not have enough to eat). The following Thursday, a son would be a bar mitzvah, and so they were in a particularly festive mood, sitting in their sukkah and singing for hours on end. If we listened closely, we could hear our neighbors up and down the block singing as well, on into the night. But, as usual, I began to hear the sound of my pillow calling to me, and we called it an evening.
Over the next several days, I kept thinking about Lippman Pike and the other goofy guests whom our JPost reporter had virtually “invited” into his sukkah. I’m as “creative” as this guy; why don’t I compile my own list? I just ask for one easement: I want to invite them all at the same time, have a real sukkah party. Since I myself don’t sing in the sukkah, why not invite some of my favorite song writers? I figure that Irvin Berlin would be too busy writing “White Christmas” to come, but perhaps ask Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen. Maybe lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Larry Hart, Otto Harbach, and Dorothy Fields? I could ask Al Jolsen, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor to sing. If that idea doesn’t pan out, how about a little comedy? Imagine a sukkah with the Marx Brothers inside. Of course, even including Zeppo, that’s only four, room for some more. Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and George Burns would liven up the evening. Of course, nobody else would get a word in edgewise.
I kept mulling this over and over in my mind. These lists were all well and good. But what it came down to was this: if I could actually invite, “virtually” or for real, anybody I wanted to into my sukkah, it would have to be the guys I grew up with on 208th Street in The Bronx. We are scattered. Some of them I am still in contact with; some are long gone. Some have quarreled and are not speaking to one another. But I can see them now, arriving at Hamitzadim, my street in Maale Adumim, a little bit east of Yerushalayim, coming down the steps to our front door. On chol hamoed, we could get out the cards and resume the poker game where we left off some fifty years ago. At a certain time of night we would put away the cards and go out to Schweller’s delicatessen for a bite to eat (a sandwich or a hot dog, depending on our evening’s fortunes); so perhaps we can order some really good and really kosher corned beef or pastrami and have it speed-sent from The States. And plenty of Dr. Brown’s soda! That you can get here. (For reasons I could never quite fathom, my friend Al was partial to their Cel-Ray. The rest of us would be content with cream soda or black cherry. Remember that we were too young for anything stronger.)
I will be continuing this series, describing real people whom we met and places which we saw over the holiday. But if Sukkot is zman simchateinu, you will forgive me a moment of reverie for a long gone time in my life, which, in its own innocent way, was a time of happiness for a special group of friends.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Time of Our Joy - Introduction

It seems inescapable that there are times when you must begin with a cliché before getting on with the business at hand. One example I can think offhand would be if you were writing an article about the latest selection of kosher wines, you would have to begin the article by reminding everyone for the twentieth time that twenty years ago the only kosher wines available were sweet Kiddush wines or poor quality red wines, etc. Then and only then, could you discuss the good quality of today’s wines. The same is true of Sukkot. I am planning to write a series of articles about the fun, interesting, and meaningful things we did over the Hag, but I have to begin with reminding everyone of two well-known and inescapable facts about Sukkot in Israel:
The best time of the year to be here is right now when the weather is perfect.
The best place in the world to be for Sukkot is here in The Land (although that’s true for any day of the year.) There, I have disposed of my obligatory clichés and I can proceed to write what’s on my mind.
It was Tuesday night, and the first phase of Sukkot was now officially over. My friend Steve S. had invited me to join him in his sukkah on the way back from Mussar Avicha, our shul. I didn’t want to stay too long; my family was waiting for me at home. But there was enough time to make a lashev b’sukkah (the blessing upon entering the sukkah) and then have a piece of cake and some melon. We started to reminisce about Sukkots of by-gone days in the Old Country, Steve and Ettie originally having hailed from the Albany area where it gets mighty cold this time of year. For them, if it didn’t rain – and the rain was frequent – that was considered sufficient motivation to sit in the sukkah, regardless of how cold it got and how many layers of clothing were required. Steve remembered sitting and waiting late in the morning for the sun to be high enough to penetrate the cold of the sukkah for an hour or two. And he remembered lining the sukkah with the local fruits of the fall harvest: various sizes, shapes, and colors of gourds and pumpkins. That reminded me of the first few years that we lived in New Jersey. Someone once suggested that we use corn stalks (readily available that time of year) for schach (what you put on top of the sukkah). It never occurred to us that what we considered as something spiritual and decorative would be seen by the local critters as food. The corn stalks we hung up one day would all be eaten by the next morning. We ultimately resorted to bland but absolutely inedible bamboo poles. But that vision of a sukkah festooned with the fall colors of the squashes and gourds led me back to something I thought about last year.
One of the great haval’s (it’s a shame) of American Jewish life is the fading away of this holiday from the consciousness of most of our landsmen. For most American Jews, the experience (if they have it at all) of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (and the never-ending time in synagogue or temple) is sufficiently daunting enough to last them for quite a while, thank you very much. If you want to do the fall harvest thing in America, there’s Halloween and Thanksgiving, which are certainly more mainstream and a lot easier to get into, as everyone else is doing it too. Enough of this separateness thing. There’s no need to take off another four days from work for parochial concerns and experiences. We’ve made our point, and let’s get on with our lives.
So if you want to do Sukkot, you have to understand what it is that is being celebrated and why it is zman simchateinu (the time of our happiness). Yet even for those of us in most of The Exile who are “religious,” our joy over the Hag is somewhat diminished by the fickleness of the weather. But the biggest limitation in America, as I see it, is the blandness of Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days between Sukkot and Shmini Adzeret/Simchat Torah, essentially “down time” when you try to limit your everyday activities. Personally, I always went to work because there wasn’t much else to do – especially if the whole idea is to be in a place where you could eat in a sukkah. Kind of limiting. Very few museums, parks, zoos, or places anywhere in The States fill the bill. The run-of-the-mill places like Great Adventures you can visit any time of the year. You might as well save your days off for another day, another time.
Here in The Land, Sukkot is The Time: time to tour the country, time to visit with family and friends, time to chill out, whether you are haredi, daati, masoreti, hilloni. People here who do not consider themselves especially “religious” enjoy sitting in their sukkah on The (one day) Hag, which is a national holiday – as is the last day, on which the staid Shmini Adzeret is enveloped into the emotional Simchat Torah. During the intermediate days, all the schools are off, government offices are closed, and many people are either off from work or take a day or two. There are special events and things to do, places to go, and, if you are of the mind, it’s not too hard to find a sukkah, even in parks and certainly in kosher restaurants.
I am especially fond of those few days here between Yom Kippur and Sukkot when you can see sukkahs being built in an hour (as opposed to the snail’s pace for most construction!) and when an arcane industry flourishes, the urgent merchandising of a citrus fruit, a palm frond, and some otherwise insignificant vegetation. It was during this season that Barbara and I visited The Land in 1980 and 1988; that was when I first “got it,” when I first understood what The Hag was all about and what was so special about being Here. In 2008, having some time on my hands, I made it a point to walk, camera in hand, around some of the religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, including places in Geulah where we had stayed two decades before. Sort of a walk down Rehov Hazichronot (Memory Lane). Some things have changed: I don’t remember that twenty years ago they were selling boxes of plainly marked “Christmas lights” for sukkah decorations to Haredim. And all the tables of lulavs and etrogs that stretched all the way down Rehov Mea Shearim have been moved into covered min-shuks along King George and on Jaffa opposite Mahane Yehuda. Twenty years ago, I returned from Israel with the latest innovation, a heavy-duty plastic container, with zipper and handle, to hold my lulav; this year, every single person in Mussar Avicha had the identical holder. A handful of years ago, somebody had the brilliant idea of marketing sealed packages of myrtle branches. This year, for the first time, I saw similarly sealed packages of those troublesome willow branches, which otherwise wilt if you look at them the wrong way. But some things have hardly changed: the ingenuity of people building sukkahs in the most unlikely, incongruous places; the general bustle, the way Haredi men will spend an hour or more meticulously examining every lulav and etrog that a vendor has to offer (the way some women shop for hats or some of us men taste wine or single malts). Everywhere in the Geulah area, people were buying and selling something. Where else in Israel would you find young men shopping for neckties? And so I sent two days just walking and photographing around Malchei Yisrael and the side streets nearby, down Rehov Yeheskel and the Bukharin market. Needless to say, there were other things to do: shopping, cooking, and erecting our sukkah (a pre-fab model with cotton panels, which because we’re stupid Americans, we washed and put in the dryer last year, so that the cotton shrunk and we had a deuce of a job getting it to fit). By the time that zman simchateinu arrived, I at least was ready. No time to think about Tzipi Livni (here in The Land, negotiations over a coalition government would be suspended until Acharei Hahagim) or Barack Obama; nightmares are not conducive to a festive mood. Barbara was off from work, Natania was on vacation from the nishkia (the weapons storeroom where she is assigned), and there would be ample time to enjoy The Land. In the next several posts, I will describe some of the things and events which brought us joy over the eight days of The Hag. I hope your holiday was as pleasant as ours.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Electing to Do Tshuvah

(I apologize for the length of this piece, but I could not find any convenient place to cut it in half. I also hope that no one is offended unduly by my political beliefs.)
Permit me to share with you an “exchange of ideas” I had recently with a (deservedly) very prominent rabbi here in The Land. In response to a question, the rabbi gave his opinion (and he stated clearly that it was only an opinion) that none of us expat Americans should vote in elections in the forthcoming Presidential election. He asked rhetorically, who or what gave us the right to do so, now that we are Here, his point being that when we left the States, we were effectively severing our connection to the land of our birth. I read this suggestion which came to me in one of the many parsha sheets available on the Web, was puzzled by it, and responded to a friend of mine who has a connection to this rabbi.
My response was: Who give us the right? That’s a slam dunk! The US government gives us the right. They want us to vote. Both political parties want us to vote. Everyone – except for this one rabbi – is encouraging us, imploring us, telling us it’s our responsibility to vote. Hundreds of thousands of Americans living abroad – not counting folks in the Armed Forces – do vote, and I suspect that people will be coming out of the woodwork to vote in this coming election. Part of the willingness, even eagerness, of the US to allow us expats the right to vote stems from the basic principal, “No taxation without representation.” American citizens are expected to file tax returns and account for their income no matter where they live (which is the exact opposite of Israel: here, if you leave the country, you don’t pay taxes and you cannot vote – unless you take a plane ride to the polling place). There is also an unusual sense of magnanimity: Americans don’t get upset if a citizen decides to reside in Bermuda. You can take out a second citizenship; you can wear the colors of a foreign government in the Olympics, no sweat.
Then there is the matter of finances. Take an old geezer like me; I’m receiving a pension from the City of New York as well as Social Security. All of our assets are tied up in banks and in other American financial institutions. Depending on the strength of the dollar and the value of our assets, I could either be rich or poor here in The Land. Wouldn’t it be prudent of me to be interested in who is minding the ship – especially now? My friend relayed my objections to the rabbi, who responded that he knew about the American law allowing us to vote (he is not from the States). Just that he thinks it’s a “bad law.” Oh.
To be fair, the point this rabbi was making was that by leaving your country of birth you are essentially granting yourself a divorce, and, just as you would have no right to meddle in the affairs of a former spouse, so you should disengage yourself from the affairs of your original country. No doubt that is how he felt, leaving the land of his birth many years ago.. But for most of us former Americans, we went away, but we didn’t go away mad. We were not kicked out; no one stole our property; no one stopped us from practicing our religion. We left of our own free will to help build a Jewish Future in our ancestral Homeland – something we felt we could not accomplish from the very real comforts of our suburban homes. We had to leave some belongings behind, we reluctantly left family and friends behind. But speaking for myself, I had to bring with me my memories, my associations, and my points of reference (not to mention my sense of gratitude to a country which gave refuge to my grandparents 125 years ago). The only way I could have left them behind would have been with a frontal lobotomy. I could no more be oblivious to the contest for the American presidency as I could fail to root for American athletes in the Olympics.
US presidential elections are probably the best show in town for its citizens, bigger than the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the Oscars put together. It is also a riveting example of participatory democracy, the best in the world. I think it is fair to say that the best thing about America is its political system. A cynic might suggest that the worst thing about Israel is its political system (which is still a lot better than folks in many other countries are offered). One reason for me to be interested in the November election in the US is that the national election we need to have here in Israel may not take place until who knows when. And so, I have returned from the post office where I dropped off our absentee ballots, making sure that we had put on enough postage for the envelopes to arrive in Hackensack in time to be counted.

That said, I began having feelings of trepidation and then alarm about the up-coming presidential election starting last spring when it started to seem likely that Barack Obama would be the Democratic nominee and that he could actually win the presidency. And while American politics is not the usual topic of conversation walking back from Mussar Avicha or at the Shabbat table, I soon realized that my sense of disquiet was shared by virtually everyone here I met who gave the matter any thought. While there is a healthy skepticism both of Israeli and American politicians of all stripes, religious Jews in America and especially here, tend to veer away from the Liberal viewpoint; and Senator Obama is understood to be on the extreme Left of the Democratic Party, someone whose positions, credentials and associations are looked on with suspicion. However, I have begun to wonder if this man is as radical as his voting record would indicate, or is he a total opportunist, the most cynical presidential candidate since Richard Milhous Nixon? Is he really the man who attended a church for whose pastor is a known crackpot, or a disingenuous and crafty politician who dismissed this same crackpot eight months ago when the going got tough, knowing full well that the American print and electronic media would give him a pass, put their collective heads in the sand, and not investigate the matter? (Talk about ignoring an elephant in a room; this is a glow-in-the-dark wooly mammoth.)
The question I put to myself was: Should I tune out, put my own head in the sand? I’m thousands of miles away, and there is little I can do to affect the outcome. If my former landsmen across the ocean want to elect someone so devoid of merit, that’s their problem. He can’t do us here in The Land any more harm than our own elected (?) government will let him. And regardless who will win, now and in the future, we will most likely see a stream of American and European politicians of all stripes tying up traffic in Jerusalem – if, Light Rail and all, there will be any traffic left to tie up – in their eagerness to tell us how we can make matters worse than they already are.
Or should I stand erect and come out swinging forcefully? After all, keeping one’s head in the sand, even figuratively, leaves a wide, unprotected area in which one can be kicked. And always, always, silence presumes assent.
Having paid him little mind until recently, I had to learn a lot more about Barack Obama. What better way than to go to his official website to find out what his campaign is saying about him and what he has accomplished. I started to read “About Barack Obama”, and I quickly realized exactly what his campaign was doing. For a number of years, Barbara was employed as an Out-Placement Counselor, working with executives who were being laid off, to help them find suitable employment. There were two things which my wife stressed over and over again: 1) networking and 2) explaining and highlighting accomplishments. Using “action words” her clients were made to focus on “increasing sales, decreasing turnaround time, improving, creating,” on and on. But supposing you hadn’t done anything out of the ordinary, you were just another cog in the wheel in the office, easily replaceable? The only thing you had increased was the consumption of coffee in the employees lounge. Well then, you’d better dazzle them with you-know-what. “Increased company’s liquidity by fifteen percent,” you trumpet. Your most memorable moment was when scored the tie-breaking run in the softball game at the company picnic, when the opposing pitcher threw a wild pitch. “Dramatically improved company morale by effectuating improvements to company social events,” you boast. Obama seems to have slid from position to position without ever doing anything to live up to his self-proclaimed promise. The work of a very creative (very!) team of writers cannot disguise the fact that their candidate for president has never run anything or done anything out of the ordinary – even if he sounds good. (I am resisting the temptation, because of space constraints, to copy his entire web bio and then, disingenuous word by word, gleefully tear it apart.)
Of course, Barack Obama doesn’t always sound good – to my ears. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I have been able to hear parts of some of his speeches. There was one thing he said that disturbed me profoundly – although it was nothing new or surprising. At the time when Sara Palin’s name first surfaced and the subsequent disclosure of her daughter’s pregnancy, and the teenager’s decision to have the baby, I heard with my own ears a recording of the senator saying that, if his still young daughters were later on to face that situation, he wouldn’t want to “punish them.” “Punish” them? I assume that he meant that having a child would be a “punishment” for a teen-age unwed mother. But who would be doing the “punishing”? Obama the family patriarch, by forcing her to have the baby? The community, by its response to the presence of an unwed mother (hearkening back to the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne)? The impregnator, for you know what? Or could he mean that a fetus is G-d’s punishment for immoral behavior? Personally, I have trouble with the notion that a human baby is a punishment, and I have some non-partisan advice for this would-be President: Be Careful. By now, everyone has heard of the warning: Be careful what you wish for……… For many years, I have taken this idea one step further: Be careful what you complain about.
Many years ago when I was a Supervisor II in the Child Welfare Department, one of the caseworkers in our area, a somewhat strange Chabadnik type, was complaining bitterly about a forthcoming three day Yom tov and how hard it was for everyone. He used the term “holocaust” to describe the degree of difficulty. Now, I knew he was exaggerating for effect, and I assumed that he knew that I knew he was exaggerating, and so forth. So I didn’t say to him, “Aren’t you being overwhelmingly overdramatic?” Instead I let the matter drop. Several years later, this same somewhat strange Chabadnik type – not the brightest crayon in the box, although a few hues more vivid than Joseph Biden – was performing bidekat chametz (the ceremony performed the night before Pesach in which you search for chametz by candlelight throughout your house). Well, this guy was certainly thorough; he was searching under a bed in an upstairs bedroom when he set a mattress on fire. On trying to drag the mattress out of the room, he set the whole house, an old wood frame building somewhere in Brooklyn, on fire. The entire house burned down, and even worse, one of his young sons was overcome with smoke asphyxiation and lay in a coma for many months. It was as if a heavenly voice were saying: “”You want a holocaust; I’ll give you a holocaust.” At least, that’s how I looked at it. Now you may think that I am demented, that I have been out in the desert heat, staring at the sand dunes out here for too long, and I need to take a rest. But I took this lesson to heart, and I have been mighty careful about what I complain about ever since.
My mother never complained – at least as far as I ever heard. She and my father were married in 1927, and she had my sister (long deceased) in 1929. Although they wanted more children, she did not seem to be able to get pregnant again. And years later, after having an ovary removed, it was obvious that there would never be any more diapers for them to change. But somewhere towards the end of 1940, she began experiencing stomach pains and, in general, to feel unwell. Her doctor’s diagnosis: Surprise, you are indeed pregnant! Using his stethoscope, (the only diagnostic tool at his disposal back then) he could detect a heartbeat in her womb. What his stethoscope could not detect was a second heartbeat of a second fetus tucked behind the first one. My mother had no idea she was delivering twins until she was in the delivery room on March 16, 1941. I’m the second heartbeat, and I can say with some pride that I am one of the most unexpected children ever born. Forty six years later, we returned the favor and gave my mother her first grandchild when she a youthful 84 years of age. I leave it to you to imagine how much she wanted to be a grandmother all those long years. Yet she never uttered a single syllable of reproach to me or Barbara (my brother Frank, may he live and be well, was not yet married at that time). I realize that the circumstances of my birth and that of the hypothetical unwed grandchildren of Barack and Michelle Obama would be vastly different, but I have to scratch my head in wonderment at the glibness with which a man can discuss the abortion of his own potential future generation.
There is an ideology here with which I cannot agree and I can only remotely understand. I’m sure that Senator Obama, being the former editor of the Harvard Law Review, can easily articulate dozens of legal and moral reasons against the death penalty, executing a prisoner convicted of a capital offense after having been found guilty by a jury of his peers. But what jury has convicted the unwanted fetus of being guilty of anything more serious than being inconvenient? We have an idea in Judaism that being merciful to the cruel will inevitably wind up in being cruel to the merciful. Somehow along the way, careening as far and as fast as we can away from the G-d who created us, we seem to have turned that idea on its head.

It should be obvious that we can only encourage families not to snuff out their progeny; we cannot stop them if they are truly determined to do so. As far as children and grandchildren are concerned, I am much more concerned about the young lives – and those of their parents and grandparents – residing here in The Land. And here again I run afoul of this Obama guy. Although it was asked about him, half in jest, what a community organizer does, I pretty much know the answer, having worked in social services for almost thirty years. One thing one would do, working in an inner-city neighborhood is to try to keep the peace. Suppose there are rival gangs and they are threatening to blow up the neighborhood, one would try to arrange a meeting with both sides and negotiate a truce. From a cosmic point of view, both of these gangs are simply nuisances. The neighborhoods were there long before the gangs were formed and will still be there, one way or another, when both gangs are long forgotten. The two gangs are simply purveyors of senseless violence and destruction, equally in the way of progress. But they take themselves seriously and must be treated as such, not letting one’s dismal opinion of their lack of importance stand in the way.
Could it be that most of the world considers the on-going dispute between us and “our cousins” in the same light? That our respective communities are simply two very much over-age groups of adolescents, each clinging to some nonsensical notions of religious honor and some irrelevant bits of “turf”? That if we would both “get a life” we could end the dispute and that would set the pattern for the rest of the region, leaving everyone else to become healthy, wealthy, and wise? Remember that most of the world is broken into two camps: one that sees all religion as either irrelevant or harmful, the second that particularly despises the G-d of Israel and the remnants of His People. What we here in Israel especially do not need are the naïve, the gullible, the hateful, or the cynical coming here to pressure us into a state of self-destruction – we have enough of these in our midst already. So would Barack Obama come here trying to broker a deal as a good but very naive social worker, completely out of his depth (as so many Republicans and Democrats have come before him), as if the Jewish people were bickering over a dozen decrepit blocks on the South Side of Chicago, instead of holding onto the Promised Land we have cherished for thousands of years? Or would he come as a true disciple of this lunatic Wright, truly our enemy? Either way, I suspect that he would consider our claims and our prayers to be less than crucial to his world view.
About two months, at the first annual Nefesh B’Nefesh Jewish Bloggers Conference, I managed to involve myself in a conversation that had started before I arrived. One man, who wrote a political blog, was explaining how when McCain had recently arrived at the Kotel with Lieberman, the candidate was wearing a knitted kippah. When several weeks later, Mike Huckabee, came to the Kotel, he too was wearing a knitted kippah. When Obama came to the Kotel (when somebody “stole” the piece of paper he stuck in a crack in the wall) he took one of the dorky paper yarmulkes for tourists that they keep at the entrance to the men’s section and stuck that on his head. Now I will admit that I have not been keeping tabs on the headgear that assorted male politicians of all stripes and all countries have worn over the years when they came to the Kotel (although I seem to recall that all American female politicians have recently been seen sporting head scarves when they visited Muslim countries). And I wouldn’t necessarily expect a gentile from Paraguay or Cambodia to have a yarmulke in his pocket. But here’s a guy running for the President of the United States, with dozens of liberal Jews as his advisors, and no one thought to give him a yarmulke before he got off the plane? Even David Dinkins (a fine gentleman who was a very ineffective mayor of NYC) had a kippah – with “Dave” embroidered on it. You may call me overly sensitive if you wish, but I sense that this Democratic nominee is not taking the concerns of my community very seriously. Please forgive me if I return the favor.
Let me conveniently throw in one more (very) sore point with me, something which I see as related and to which I have alluded: the negative world-wide role of the communication media, both culturally and politically. We recently had Friday night dinner with two friends who are devoted readers of my essays. The topic under discussion was: has the media in America gotten any worse in the last few years? My friends insisted that it’s the same old obviously and overtly biased bunch of Leftists that it always was. My claim is that there is a new sense of arrogance, a “we’re not even going to pretend we’re objective, or that we have any other purpose besides being cheerleaders for one side, because we’re smarter than you and know better” attitude that I had not detected before. Of course, it could be worse (and I suspect it will be sooner than you think). Ask the Jewish community in England about the BBC. What I hadn’t realized until we came to live in The Land is how unabashedly leftward-slanted the media is here. As most of you are aware, there was a recent Kadima primary to determine who would head up their party, and, they hope (and I hope not), the next government. The contest was really between two major candidates: Shaul Mofaz, representing the ‘we-occasionally-give-a-nod-and-pay-lip-service-to-reality’faction, and Tzipi Livni, representing the ‘reality-is-a-place-where-we-take-a-biannual-vacation’faction. Of course, the media here favored Livni, and, in the course of their coverage, reported bogus polling data showing Livni with a huge, insurmountable lead among Kadima voters. On Election Day itself – while the voting were still going on, no less – they were trumpeting exit polls showing Livni with the same impregnable lead. But when the ballots were actually counted, surprise! – Livni won by a scant few hundred votes, a result which may have been different if Mofaz supporters hadn’t been discouraged and demoralized by these patently false projections. And what was the response of the pollsters and the media to the fact that their data was wildly inaccurate? “The voters lied to us.” Can you even begin to fathom such chutzpah? No, everything is not perfect in The Land.
With all the very real pain our political leaders are causing us and our sometimes seeming inability to stop them, it would be very easy to see things spinning out of control, but the secret to my generally cheerful disposition is that I try to remember Who is actually in control. Hint: it’s not politicians of either Party in America, nor is in any of the myriad factions here in The Land, nor is it the vulgar, braying sycophants in the media who think they are so smart and/or we are so dumb. And when I reconsider whether I should bend over with my head in the sand or stand erect and hurl diatribes at my opponents, I remember the instruction for the Viduy (confession) on Yom Kippur: “ should stand with head and body slightly bowed, in submissive contrition.” Seeking tshuvah, it’s a very ennobling experience, something I recommend heartily to anyone who thinks that he/she is the smartest creature on G-d’s green earth. There, now I feel better.

Here are some of the things I prayed for this Yom Kippur:
A political leadership in The Land that functions based upon our very large needs, not upon our paltry merits.
A rabbinic leadership that sees its constituency as the entire nation of Israel, not just those who dress like them or go their synagogues, and who understand that freeing our captives is a greater Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) than who will be the next Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem.
A growing nation of Jews who will each find the koach (strength) to perform at least one small act to increase the light of Torah in the world and the amount of Ahavat Yisrael (love of every Jew, whether they look like us, dress like us, or pray like us).
A growing body of Jews in the West who dream of living in the Land, and who find the wherewithal to make that happen.
And would someone, anyone, please say “Amen.”

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Musing on a Machzor

It’s not quite as easy for a Jewish person in America to know that Rosh Hashana is coming as a Christian (or anybody) to know that Christmas is coming – what with all the signs commencing in mid-September announcing the number of shopping days until – but it’s almost as easy – especially here in The Land. It’s especially easy for a shul goer anywhere, with the extra prayers, the blowing of the shofar every weekday morning for a month before. However, in general, I’m more likely to be stirred by more mundane signs and wonders.
For many years when I was employed in NYC’s child welfare department, I worked at 80 Lafayette St., a few blocks south of Canal Street. Every Thursday, I would spend my lunch hour heading over to the Lower East side for some food shopping (kosher food not being as easy to locate as now). My itinerary always included Bistritsky’s, which in addition to having a selection of kosher cheese which you could have sliced as you waited, a rare refinement in the 1970’s and 80’s, contained a bewildering, almost infinite assortment of kosher products crammed onto some very finite shelves. Then I would walk half a block down Essex St. and turn onto Hester St. to go to Gertel’s. There must have been a family called Gertel who opened this bakery in 1914, but during the time frame under discussion, the store was run a small man of indeterminable age whose concentration camp tattoo on his arm was unmistakable. During most of the year, the store functioned as a normal kosher bakery, stocking challas, rye breads, cakes, and pastries of all kinds. Twice a year, at Pesach and Rosh Hashana, the store turned into a shine of sorts. People from all over the tri-state area would descend on to the L.E.S., just as the swallows return to Capistrano every March. While on a normal Thursday, you would walk into Gertel’s, wait a few minutes for your number to be called, and negotiate your order, during the two weeks before Rosh Hashana, people would line up patiently, fifty or more people at a time, down the block to get their challas I assume that they took them home and froze them). In order to maintain order, the proprietor (if I ever knew his name, I have long forgotten it) would stand by the door and let in his customers ten at a time. As you passed him in the entrance, he would shake your hand and, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of seriousness (which probably came from being where a shofar or a challah was only a fantasy), wish you a shana tova with as much warmth and emotion as any man could muster. Inside the store, the menu was pared down to a bare minimum: no rye bread, no black and white cookies, just sponge and honey cakes and challot for the holiday: with or without raisins, an eight inch size and a twelve inch size. Challot by the hundreds, filling every shelf in the store, racks and racks of more challot everywhere in the store, all out of the oven less than an hour, too warm to place immediately into plastic bags. And when I shook this man’s hand and saw with my own two eyes this array of challot, then and only then did I KNOW that Rosh Hashana was fast approaching.
There came a time when the proprietor sold the store to others, and the shop on Hester St. near Essex with its original faded sign survived until just before we made aliyah in 2007. Here in Jerusalem in 2008, I was on a different kind of line the Sunday before the holiday. I was trying to get into the Central Bus Station in the midst of a crush of people trying to maneuver past one security check point and then a conveyor belt to inspect your luggage. It was extremely crowded, perhaps with people traveling early before the holiday. The thing was, I wasn’t going anywhere – except maybe the WC! I just had to go up to the ticket booths on the third floor to buy monthly bus passes for me and for Barbara. I finally made it up to there, waited my turn on another line, and greeted a woman of indeterminable age behind the counter with my usual mantra: “hofshi hodshi, paamaim, m’Maale Adumim, b’pensia” (a monthly bus pass, two of them, from Maale Adumim, with the senior citizen discount.) So far so good. I gave her my credit card, she startd the transaction, and then asked for our telephone number (which serves as our account number into the computer system where she verifies that we are on record as being Alte Kockers and entitled to the discount). No problem: “efes, steim, hamesh, tesha, efes, echad, hamesh, shalosh, arba. As I began rattling off the numbers in Hebrew, I noticed the clerk’s lips begin to quiver, break into a grin, and then, although she tried to suppress it, start giggling. I said to her in mock dismay, “Don’t laugh at my Hebrew” (one gets used to having people laugh at your Hebrew here). She composed herself, and with a twinkle in her eye said to me helpfully in heavily accented English: “We have an expression here in Israel, shana tova.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had heard that expression once or twice in America, so I just politely replied, “shana tova.” I took my passes, turned around, and retraced my steps out of the tachanah mercazit. Even with everything going on around me, then and only then did I KNOW that Rosh Hashana was on its way.
This year, both Natania and Tina would be home, as well as one of Tina’s friends. I had already purchased seats for everyone (a hundred shekels a pop, plus 240 shekels for membership, and a portion of the 3000 shekel building fund – cheap by American standards). The problem was that I had only four Rosh Hashana machzors for the five of us.(Mussar Avicha being a not so heavily endowed establishment, one is better off bringing a prayer book of one’s own, unless you want one of the ones in Russian that nobody wants.) The simple solution would be (gasp) to buy another one, but that would run contrary to my fervently frugal nature. It happens that we do have an extra machzor, one that is never used. It is part of a set of prayer books that Barbara bought when she was in Israel in 1967-8, inscribed and given as a bar mitzvah gift to her brother Phillip. Seven years later, when her brother was killed driving a car across country, these machzorim returned to Barbara’s possession, and we still have them. So the simplest solution would be for me to take this one and leave the newer, more user-friendly ones for everyone else.
There I was, the first day of Rosh Hashana, sitting in Mussar Avicha, trying to use this machzor. I began to remember why this machzor was never used. I had the sense that this machzor was printed by an old man who could not see as well as he used to in his half-lit basement in Tel Aviv on an ancient printing press, a holdover from his great grandfather. The print was uneven with some Hebrew letters unidentifiable; the ‘vav’ was particularly problematic, often looking like a ‘yud’ so that ‘Torah’ became ‘Tira.’ Sometimes, the letters weren’t even on a straight line. Everything was smushed together, one line running into another, as if the davening was one long, continuous prayer, particularly problematic if you had to find your way in the middle. The few instructions on the Hebrew pages were in Yiddish. And most problematic was the nusach (the arrangement of the prayers). There was stuff that I had never seen before, even in the “many congregations omit the following prayers” section of the seemingly all-inclusive ArtScroll version. After a little intensive research, I found out that the nusach used was one found only in three small villages in the East Carpathian Mountains, where in a fit of piety they would begin davening at 2AM and continue without interruption for twelve hours. The English translation was particularly interesting, with novel interpretations throughout, including an explanation of the Jewish fascination with Chinese food which began early in our history: “The memorial of the good woks of the ancient patriarch (/Abraham) whom thou didst raise up from the east…………” I had the sense that this translation was done by someone whose native tongue was Kurdish, but who had memorized the King James Version, who handed his work to someone who knew no English at all for typesetting. All around me, Mussar Avicha being a shul with lots of Anglos, sensible people were using ArtScroll or similar machzorim (You can make the argument that theArtScroll series represents the strengths of American Jewry: logically and clearly laid out, easy to read, easy to follow – even for someone with limited Hebrew. But I am always wondering what value the series will have in 100 years. My parents inherited a German-Hebrew Bible from my mother’s cousin Ludwig, one of many relatives who made it out of Germany in the 1930’s. It was beautifully done, and I know it was very useful in the nineteenth century when it was printed. But now? How many Jews today read that language? Even Samson Raphael Hirsch’s work survives only in translation. We can only guess how many Jews will speak English as their first language in another 100 years.)
At Mussar Avicha, we have no professional help with the High Holiday davening. (Larry Yudkowitz, where are you?) Selected members lead the davening. The first day, a new oleh, a guy a little bit younger than me, with an American pronunciation and melodies, was the sheliach tzibbor for mussaf . The second day, a younger Israeli was sent up to bat. His voice was not as good as the first guy, but the tunes he chose were more familiar to the congregation, so there was more singing from the congregation. But in the middle of mussaf, my attention was distracted and I looked out the window.
I am one of these strange people who notices cats wherever they are. If I were at the Grand Canyon and there were a cat at the bottom, I would first see the cat. So when I looked out the window at our shul, I saw a cat. The cat, in this case, was not alone. He or she came with a person and three large dogs tied to a gate. The person was a woman of indeterminate age who was sitting on a stone railing outside the shul. She was wearing dungarees and had a large sky-blue shawl wrapped around her head. She was not sitting there idly; she had a machzor and was praying with much fervor. Occasionally, she would lift her eyes from her machzor and cast them towards the heaven, a look of rapture on her face, with the feline arching its back around her legs. For these holidays, I am assigned a seat in a different section from where I normally sit. My temporary neighbor is a young fellow Anglo named Binyamin who makes his living repairing appliances. I nudged him and pointed to this unusual sight. He looked and responded to me: “Only in Israel.” When it is time for shofar blowing, a few of the men open the windows, so that anyone outside can hear (there are always a few moms davening while rocking strollers), although our shofar blower, Mordechai B. blows with such force that you could probably hear him outside even with the windows closed. The indeterminable aged woman arose and sprang to attention, a member of G-d’s army. Perhaps someday, I will begin to approach this woman’s intensity, her level of kavanah. As for now, I can walk, if I had to, from our home a little bit east of Yerushalayim past the canion, out the entrance to Maale Adumim, onto the main road, past the checkpoint, past Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, and from there to the Old City and the Temple Mount, believed to be the site of Mount Moriah, where it all began with a ram caught in a bush. It is amazing where your feet, mind, and spirit can lead you if you follow their instructions.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Miracle by the Shore, A Mirage in the Sand

A hand picks up the remote control and presses the start button to resume the film: the man whose leg was frozen in mid-air for several weeks begins to ascend the bus, and the line of people waiting patiently behind him starts moving forward. The bus fills up, the door closes, and the bus goes forward out of the parking lot. We have resumed our journey to Ashdod, exactly where we left off about four weeks and several essays ago. Heaven forbid that I should deliberately mislead anyone. Anyone who read the previous article “On the Horn of a Dilemma” (in which we described the valiant and successful campaign to repel the Egyptian army in 1948) would be under the impression that our tour group would be getting back on the bus and heading from this isolated spot under a bridge (the most northern advance by the Egyptians) up to Ashdod. In fact, to fit everything in we were supposed to see, we toured this modern city first and only then went to the site of the battle – and from there on to Negba, a kibbutz in the area which also played a pivotal role in the battle for independence and sovereignty. But a writer has no logistical constraints, and therefore in this imaginary film version, we can proceed chronologically through Jewish history, the securing of the State of Israel in 1948 preceding the establishment of the city in the 1950’s.
Like most of the people on our bus, I hadn’t given much thought to the goings-on in this sea-side community. I remember once a visiting rabbi from there coming to Beth Aaron, our shul in Teaneck, to raise money for an emergency medical center in Ashdod. I know that our lift arrived in the port there (we never had to go there to sign the required papers thanks to our man Ed Singer from Sonigo, who took care of everything in Jerusalem), and that’s about it. Barbara had been there – in 1968 – because it was the closest town to escape from Kvutzat Yavneh, where she was learning Ivrit and, among other things, picking olives. Back then, Ashdod was a sleepy, rather dull town of mostly Moroccans, (this being one of the settlement communities which Ben-Gurion used to dump the tens and hundreds of thousands of Sephardic refugees from North Africa) as well as a sizeable number of Jews from India. (Barbara relates the story of Miriam, a shy young woman from India, who surprisingly spoke no English. She was with a group of Ulpanists who were sitting in a small coffee shop in Ashdod. Within minutes, several dozen young Indian men “just happened” to arrive; each one making an immediate detour to come and talk to Miriam, who for the first time in her life was the star of the show. Barbara also relates a wonderful story about taking a taxi from the kibbutz to Ashdod. As they were nearing their destination, the driver noticed two men engaged in Israel’s national pastime, arguing. He slammed on the brakes and jumped out of his monit, just so he could join in the argument. Some things haven’t changed!) But, while many of the development towns which the Labor Party created remain just what they were, pockets of poverty and unemployment off-the-beaten path, Ashdod became a demographic Cinderella. The three reasons why: location, location, location. It is right on the Mediterranean, with the bluest waters you can ever imagine; it’s a natural port; it’s close enough to Tel Aviv and environs to make daily commuting realistic.
So when the tidal wave of aliyah from the then Soviet Union began in the 1980’s, this town became very popular. And then the French, who as a general rule tend to hang out near the Mediterranean, started to move in. Now, this dumpy town of maybe 40,000 has become the fifth largest city in Israel, a growing metropolis of over 200,000 Jews of all religious stripes (I understand that there are only several hundred Anglos scattered throughout the city; unfortunately, not currently a destination for American olim.) Our actual tour bus wended its way past the beaches, through the streets of the many sections of the city, (how many communities in the world have a street named after Johannes Brahms?) into the prosperous shopping areas with their glamorous stores, past all the new construction (only some of it for foreign investors). At one point, looking at the large pastel-colored buildings right off the ocean, I could imagine that I was back in Palm Beach County, Florida. You could almost hear a collection of hearts swelling with pride on our bus. The majority of us on this tiyul were expat Americans from the Jerusalem area who had either never been here before or were last here thirty years ago, and, as I said, had no idea what to expect. We were collectively overwhelmed with the standard of living in this metropolis beside the blue waters of the Mediterranean and its transformation from what had been essentially a large sand pile with a few thousand poor people. (Just so that you should know, there are problems here too: the port is officially closed on Shabbat, but among the many synagogues, there are a few clandestine churches for Russian back-sliders; the air quality is poor – just like New Jersey; a new hospital may or may not actually get built.)
It is very easy for a Jew, living in America, to retain an image of Israel as a still-poor country – after all, most of the representatives who are sent to the States to interact with the organized Jewish community are trying to raise money for a long list of worthy projects and unmet needs which can still be filled by the generosity of American donors. But to put things in their proper perspective, according to a study from 2007 (which you can find on the web), the rate of Jewish poverty in Israel is less than in the United States, where as many as 20% of all Jews fall into that category. The poverty rate here in The Land is estimated at about 25%, but half of that is from the non-Jewish part of the population. (Let me go on record as not being in favor of Arab poverty, but we are dealing there with difficult politically charged issues.) And then you toss into the mix that a H-U-G-E part of that remaining twelve or thirteen percent is made up of what I call the “willfully poor,” the planned poverty of our friends in the Haredi community, where officially more than half of the men do not work and where extremely large families are the norm. Do a little arithmetic, include in your calculations that there are large pockets of poverty in Jerusalem and in the still-isolated development towns, and you can understand that there are many places in the country – including a little bit east of Yerushalayim – where a lot of people are doing pretty well – by Israeli standards. And the more you travel throughout this tiny Land, the more you witness the economic miracle that is going on here.
But back to 1948 and the desperate defense of our borders, a time which seems so long ago and far away. As we were riding on the bus, our tour guide made one remark in passing (to be clear: it was the remark, not the bus that was doing the passing) which I have been thinking about ever since. There are no Arab villages in this part of the country, and that is because they were simply obliterated in the 1948 war. The Palmach command asked Ben-Gurion for permission to continue this campaign across the country to Hebron, but the request was denied. So while there are relatively few Arabs in the area around Tel Aviv (except for Jaffa), there are many left in the area around Jerusalem,. And here we arrive (intellectually, not on the bus) at another dilemma, one in which our Western, liberal heritage, which looks with abhorrence at ethnic cleansing, is emphatically at odds with our Torah tradition. “You shall possess the Land and you shall settle in it……. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land before you, those who are left shall be pins in your eyes and a barrier in your sides, and they will harass you upon the Land in which you dwell. And it shall be that what I had meant to do to them, I shall do to you (from Bamidbar, “Numbers” chapter 33). Now it can be said that the Torah was discussing a situation in which the inhabitants of the Land were idol worshippers. It can be argued that the Arabs of today who encourage or countenance using children as suicide bombers and in general worship Death are practicing a form of avodah zara. Whether one accepts this line of reasoning or not, whether one understands the passage quoted above as a specific commandment applicable today – or not, there can be no question – except from the “none so blind as those who will not see” crowd – that it is some mighty good, prescient advice, a dead-on prediction of what has come to pass. How else can it be put? From the eighth century, when Islam conquered the Land and forbade Jews from owning land, so, that for the first time since the time of Joshua, Jews were no longer a majority there – until the present day, it is fairly obvious from their words and deeds that Arabs do not want Jews living in the Land in any significant numbers PERIOD – even though the descendents of Ishmael have done precious little with it except to place their domes and mosques on our holiest sites.
When the children of Israel entered The Land under Joshua’s leadership, the inhabitants were given a choice: “Stay, Leave or Fight.” Imagine how different things would be today, if we had told the Arabs in 1948: “You have to make a choice. You may live here in peace as residents of the state of Israel, and we will be a lot more obliging to you than you ever would have been to us. You may leave and take all your movable property with you, a nicety which has rarely been offered to us. Three, you may choose to fight us, in which case we will show you the same mercy or lack thereof as you would have shown us. Option four: there is no option four. Please return to the main menu and choose from options one to three. But you can’t hang up the phone until you have chosen one of them. In other words, it would be their issue, their problem, their choice, and their dilemma.
But consider how Chaim Weizman, a scientist and political leader of truly great intelligence and probity, (just like today’s leaders!) approached the issue. He had no illusions about whom he was dealing with. He wrote in his autobiography “Trial and Error,” “Conversations and negotiations with Arabs are not unlike chasing a mirage in the desert: full of promise and good to look at, but likely to lead you to death by thirst.” (Has anybody ever said it better?!!) Yet as he wrote on “the day following the historic decision of the United Nations,” in 1947, “I have spoken of the problem of our internal relations with our Arab minority; we must also face the arduous task of achieving understanding and co-operation with the Arabs of the Middle East.” Later in the same paragraph, he wrote about the “fear in the hearts of many Arabs” which “must be eliminated in every way.”
Do you see what he’s done, and by extension what the secular Zionist leadership, good socialists and humanists, did? Created Option Four: Never mind options one two and three; it’s not your problem, it’s our problem. You don’t have to live with us; we have to live with you. You don’t have to “understand” us; we need to “understand” you. And after doing your best to wipe us off the map and off the face of the earth, and when, by the grace of G-d and the valor of so many, you failed, and now you are afraid of us…… That too is our problem, as if a little fear might not be a good thing. It does wonders for focusing one’s mental energies.
I think I’m on to something, a dirty little secret which I’m willing to share: once you assume ownership of a problem, you assume the onus for finding the solution. And then, whether you like it or not, you will have also tacitly assumed responsibility for causing the problem in the first place. Perhaps this will explain why our leaders are chasing the “Palestinians,” begging them to take almost all of our Land, and why they are holding out for the whole kit and caboodle. In effect, the Arabs have wisely chosen equal parts of all three options. Millions of them have decided To Stay, while Fighting on their own terms, and at the same time, accusing us of making them Leave. Once you have a problem securely fastened inside your backpack, it is hard to dislodge it. But that is what we have to do, and return it to its rightful owner.