Monday, February 11, 2008

A Tu B'Shvat Seder

(I believe that this is where we left off before the intermission)
…We had responded to an e-mail from Isralite (one of the many excellent outreach programs offered here in The Land): “…Tu B’Shvat offers a unique opportunity for insight into living and personal growth. Throughout the centuries, Mystics have used the tree as a metaphor to understand G-d’s relationship to the spiritual and physical worlds.” Well. I’m all for personal growth, particularly if there is something to eat and real wine involved. And so we headed for the Old City to meet up with our friends, the Glazers, who had just made aliyah a month before, and Phil, another friend from Teaneck, who was here scouting out a school for his son. Off the bus at Yaffa St., down through the Yaffa Gate, through the Old City into the Jewish Quarter, past the Cardo, past the Hurva (a large synagogue that our friends and neighbors, The Jordanians, demolished when they had control of the Old City, and which is being rebuilt), almost to the end of the plaza, just before the descent down the stairs to The Kotel, turn left into a little alleyway, Misgav Ladach, find #25, go up a flight of stairs and there you are at the headquarters of Isralite. Not very grandiose, but certainly very friendly. We had been given two instructions: bring exact change for admission, and come on time. Well, we did both. Of course, they didn’t start on time, but we had plenty of time to chat with our friends and size up the situation. We were in a long, narrow room with arched ceilings, obviously not built in the last ten years. The long table was set up with wine and the fruits and nuts for the seder. The lights were dimmed with lit candles on the table, the kind of ambience you would want to have if you were planning to propose to your future spouse. People started to come in, F.L. I.S. (fashionably late, Israeli style) although I suspect that most of the guests were originally from the Great 48. And when there were many more people present than the room could reasonably accommodate, it was time to begin.
It happens that we had participated in Tu B’Shvat seders in our past, going back to Jackson Heights, NY and Caldwell, NJ., so we knew “the drill”: whatever songs are sung or words of wisdom imparted, there are always four cups of a grape beverage, starting with all white, then a little red mixed with the white, then mostly red, then all red. I still don’t understand why you do that. The fruits and nuts are easier. Wherever you are trying to go in life, there is often something stopping you, an initial resistance, corresponding to products with a hard shell or peel. Even when you go beyond that, there is perhaps a core resistance, corresponding to fruits with pits inside. The third stage corresponds to that stage when you have overcome most of your obstacles, and for this, there are those few fruits where you can eat the entire thing, like figs or persimmons. Finally, you reach such a spiritual level (you wish!) that you’re beyond the physical, so there is no food which corresponds.
But in our previous attempts at Tu B’Shvat seders in The States, there was always something missing, a sense of disconnectedness. There we were celebrating an arboreal new year, and my closest visual cue would be the dead Xmas trees that our gentile neighbors had left out by the curb or in the alley way. We were having fun, but it didn’t mean much. It may have been partly something lacking in us (I will admit that most kabbalistic concepts enter my brain and leave it with the speed of an Israeli taxi driver going from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon), but mostly it was another case of wrong time, wrong place. Try having an American July 4th barbecue in New Zealand, where it would be the dead of winter.
The rabbi leading the seder was a wonderful young man named Mottle Wolfe (probably the only non-Haredi guy in Jerusalem named Mottle). In between singing, strumming the guitar, cueing us when and what to eat and drink, Reb Mottle dropped the following seemingly innocuous question: where is the holiest place in The Land? We were maybe a football field and a half from The Kotel and The Temple Mount, and he was asking…. No, insisted Reb Mottle, the holiest place was……the Machane Yehuda shuk! To which, I let out a barely audible gasp. Reb Mottle’s explanation (with the additional historical fill-in by ours truly) is as follows: The building in which we were sitting, even – as I mentioned before – as old as it was, had been constructed on the ruins of a much older and bloodier structure, a Crusader fortress.
(Do any of you – especially if you had any part of a secular education – remember what you learned about The Crusades? If you don’t, here’s a short excerpt from the Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia article on The First Crusade to refresh your memory;
“The success of the First Crusade was unprecedented. Newly achieved stability in the west left a warrior aristocracy in search of new conquests and patrimony, and the new prosperity of major towns also meant that money was available to equip expeditions….. The Papacy saw the Crusades as a way to assert Catholic influence as a unifying force, with war as a religious mission. This was a new attitude to religion: it brought religious discipline, previously applicable only to monks, to soldiery—the new concept of a religious warrior and the chivalric ethos.”
Kind of takes your breath away. “Religious discipline, chivalric ethos.”
As the eleventh century of the Common Era was coming to a close, there seemed to be two main “industries” prevalent in Europe: building incredible cathedrals and hating infidels. Veteran readers of these posts will remember the four main excuses for European anti-Semitism: 4) ruining their economy. Whatever economy there was in Europe at the time was created by Jews; so that wouldn’t work. 3) Blood libels. The first recorded blood libel in Europe didn’t occur until 1144; so that wouldn’t work. 2) The black plague. The Bubonic plague didn’t arrive in Europe until the fourteenth century so that wouldn’t work. But 1) killing “Their Savior”? Timeless. In 1096 C.E., mobs of men, women, and children began “pilgrimages” to Jerusalem to regain control of the city from the Muslims. Most of them never got there. In fact, why go to all that trouble when there are so many Jews nearby? As part of this “First Crusade,” 10,000 German soldiers proceeded to Jerusalem by marching in the opposite direction, north through the Rhine Valley, decimating entire Jewish communities along the way. In Worms, they herded the entire Jewish community into the synagogue and then burned down the building. You might consider this an eleventh century version of “inter-faith dialogue.” In 1099 C.E., the remnants of this vicious band joined with other Roman Catholics in besieging Jerusalem and massacring every Jew, Muslim, and Eastern Christian they could find. Some of these Crusaders intended to stay and create an agricultural society. The ruined structure under our building on Misgav Ladach #25 was part of that effort.)
Of course, The Crusaders could grow nothing, and their project was an abject failure. Our holy land, which had remained desolate and barren from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple and our expulsion as a nation, would remain unmanageable no matter who conquered it. Only when we Jews began to return and create a viable yishuv would anything grow in the soil. And now The Land is blossoming again with flowers, fruits, and vegetables. And where is the most tangible manifestation of this restored fertility? The enormous market, Mahane Yehuda, of course.
Let me add the following thought. We know that today there are no overt miracles, by which is meant that even the most miraculous events take place within the framework of nature. You can choose to believe, or you can choose not to believe. When you see a tomato that was just grown here (and let’s set aside for now any discussion of how “shmittah” should be dealt with), you can consider it as a product of fertilizer and agronomics. Or when you see an enormous pile of tomatoes – ripe, succulent, full of flavor – in the shuk, and then a worker comes, opens a huge carton, and places even more tomatoes on the pile, you can choose to see “The Hand” of Our Creator at work.
It happened that I was sitting right next to Reb Mottle. When the seder was over, we both stood up, and I told him that he had scared me. He looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked me what I meant. I told him that I had thought that I was the only one who considered Mahane Yeduda to be the holiest place in The Land. He looked at me; I looked at him. We hugged each other.

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