Sunday, May 25, 2008

"Lifnei Herodion

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!Nothing beside remains. Round the decayOf that colossal Wreck, boundless and bareThe lone and level sands stretch far away.
(from “Ozymandias” by Percy Byshe Shelley)
Smola. Lifnei Herodion. There are occasions when we take a munit (taxi) back from the center of town, usually with our groceries, or, on rare occasions, get a ride with a friend. When we get to the top of our street, and we need to give specific directions to find our house, invariably one of us will say “Smola. Lifnei Herodion.” Our little section of Maale Adumim is known as Hamitzadim. It consists of one main horseshoe shaped street, called for convenience sake Hamitzadim, and two intersecting streets, first, Horkania and then, Herodion. And there we are at number 33, on the left side as you are going down the hill, right before Herodion.
One thing I have noticed about street names in general. People accept them as identifiers, but rarely consider their meaning. Some places, like New York City, use numbered streets. It’s hard to quarrel with E. 208 St, where I grew up in the Bronx (even though it was nowhere near E. 207 St. or E. 209 St, and I don’t think there was ever a W. 208 St; but we’ll ignore that). The other streets in my neighborhood, the ones with names, were familiar to us from American history: Rochambeau, Steuben, Kossuth, Hull Ave., all named for heroes in the American Revolution or the War of 1812. But as I moved away from my childhood home, the connections to the street names became less and less clear. The first apartment of my own, still in The Bronx, was on College Ave., but there was no institution of higher learning anywhere near where I lived (unlike University Place, which was near the Bronx campus of NYU). In Passaic, we lived on High St., which was higher up the hill from Main Ave., but lower than the next street, Pennington, which was in fact on the top of the hill. In Teaneck, many of the streets seemed to be named for families that lived there long ago: Churchill, Winthrop, Garrison, Grayson, Carlton, Cranford. I had no idea who these people were or when they lived there; nor can I imagine how I would have done any research. But after a while I realized that even when I did know (for example, that Votee Park was named after Milton Votee, a long-deceased former mayor) it added no meaning to my life. And I don’t think I was alone. I suspect that for Congregation Beth Aaron as a group, both the old-timers who had been living there for twenty or thirty years or the younger crowd moving in, Queen Anne Road was simply where the shul was, with no connection to any royal family or personage.
Here a little bit east of Yerushalayim, most of our streets have some connection to The Land or The Torah. Now when I walk to my current synagogue, Mussar Avicha, which is in the neighboring Clei Shir (musical instruments section), I go past Hagittit (“a musical instrument named after the town of Gath,” according to Rashi). Psalm 81, which is said every Thursday, sounds like a street map of that area: Hatof (drum), Hanevel (lyre), and of course Hashofar, names which any schoolchild here can identify. Nonetheless, I hadn’t given much thought to Herodion, named for the fortress south of Jerusalem built by Herod “The Great,” that same Herod who, despite his ignoble lineage, ruled over Judea for thirty four years, expanded the Temple Mount, rebuilt the Second Beit Hamikdash, built cities, excavated harbors, and remade a mountain to house this grand complex. I should add that he also murdered most of his family.
My ignorance would soon come to an end. We had signed up for a tiyul to Herodion for Sunday, April 27. We here in The Land were through with Pesach, while those of you still in Exile were sentenced to one more day of chewing matzoh, with its concomitant damage to one’s intestines. To be fair, we too had an ordeal, undergoing a surreal sharav (heat wave) during most of the intermediate days. The temperature in Jerusalem at several times reached close to 100° F., not hot enough to stop sundry Hassidim from sporting their shtreimels, but beyond the comfort zone for most of us. Nonetheless, schools were closed, many people were off from work, and it was time to travel the Land. Barbara and I had taken a number of tiyulim, of which I remember precious little because of the heat, but we could see everywhere we went how many Israelis, by car or by tour bus, were visiting the parks, nature preserves, or historic sites that cover our tiny country. I read later that an estimated two million Israelis visited one of the sixty three national park and reserves during these intermediate days. That’s a third of the country! That would be like a hundred million Americans visiting Yellowstone, Yosemite, etc. the week of July 4th.

Fortunately for everyone, the sharav finally broke as Pesach ended, and it would be perfect weather to visit Herodion, fifteen kilometers from the southern edge of the city. The tiyul we were going on was sponsored by an organization called Tanachtiyulim, and therein lies one more story. Ezra Rosenfeld is one of the many Anglo-Israelis I have met who have reinvented themselves in The Land. For many years he was part of the administration of Tzomet (or Zomet), an organization which, among other things, uses scientific knowledge to provide technological solutions to issues of Jewish law (like running a hospital on Shabbat). One day, Ezra decided that he had spent too much time behind a computer and decided that he wanted to get out into the fresh air. He had seen over the years the creation of several organizations which gave tours visiting sites of historical and Biblical interest and decided to see if there was a market for these tours, catering to an Anglo crowd. He had been in business for less than one year, and was working hard to make these tours as exciting and factual as possible.

The guide for this tiyul was his neighbor, Aryeh Routenberg, another man who had reinvented himself. He had started out in life as a New Englander; once he moved to Israel, he decided that he was now an official Israeli, and for all intents and purposes spoke only Hebrew. Ezra had practically begged him to conduct tours in English for him. He was touted as the best tour guide in Israel, and, in a crowded field, he is at the top.

And so we were on our way, a mixed group of part time and full time Anglo-Israelis and some tourists, one young man studying in yeshiva, another having made aliyah, and one elderly couple that no one thought would make it through the day, but who held up surprisingly well. As promised, we arrived at Herodion on the new road in about fifteen minutes from the southern part of Jerusalem, passing Beit Lechem – where no Israeli citizen is allowed to go – along the way, and disembarked at a parking lot in the lower part of this national park. There we were, standing in a flat field where the lower part of this enormous complex had stood: the large pool used for swimming and boating, the bath house, (both requiring elaborate systems to bring in water, a rare commodity in the desert), the large area in the distance on which Herod’s elaborate funeral procession had been staged. Aryeh was continuing his running commentary, giving us some needed historical background, and explaining what these glorified piles of rocks had once been. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed some activity in what seemed to be an abandoned structure right off the main road. No, it was not abandoned; there was a Bedouin family living in this hovel. I began to think of Ozymandias and the ephemeral nature of monuments to oneself.

Of course, Ozymandias did not have Ehud Etzer at his disposal. This eminent Israeli archaeologist has spent the last thirty years excavating at Herodion (taking over from a French team which was digging when this area was under Jordanian control), all the while looking for the long lost site of Herod’s tomb. If you are up on your archaeology, you will, of course, remember that Etzer’s team stumbled upon it – half way up the mountain, not where anyone had thought to look – just about a year ago. To see what all the fuss is all about, we got back on the bus and were driven to the upper parking lot. Before we began our short journey to the remains of Herod’s palace and the site of his tomb, most of us stopped to admire the view, looking down and around at the surrounding countryside, a patchwork of barren land, Bedouin homes, and a little bit southwest of us, the community of Tekoa with its red roofs, distinctive of Israeli homes. Two things crossed my mind: a recent discussion and an obscure board game that I used to watch thirty five years ago.

Directly after the expulsion of the people from Gaza and the attendant discussion of how this fiasco could have occurred, there was an idea that the National-Religious community had spent insufficient resources in a dialogue with the rest of the Israeli community to explain the importance of a Jewish presence in Gaza and the futility of abandoning land to the PLO. One of my friends in Teaneck had for many years taken the position that by not directly confronting ideologically the political Left and focusing instead on settling empty hilltops, the religious Zionist forces were sowing the seeds of its own destruction. His point of view has much to recommend it; but looking down at the Bedouin homes in the valley, it occurred to me that there was one consideration his point of view could not take into account.

Are you at all familiar with a game played in China, Japan, and Korea called Go (or Goe)? I had the opportunity to witness this arcane game being played when I was still working as a caseworker in a social service center in New York. Late in the afternoon when all the clients who had shown up had been serviced, one of the supervisors would pull out the board (a rectangular grid) and begin a game with one of his workers (he subsequently left his wife and moved in with the young lady, but that’s not relevant to our story). The idea of the game was to continue placing your markers (black or white pieces each the size of a “mento”) one at a time on the board in such a way as to surround and thus capture some of your opponent’s markers. Exactly how you did this, I never understood, and thus, much of the strategy of the game eluded me.

But what I was witnessing below in the area known as “The Gush” was fairly straightforward. No Bedouin who had built a structure had obtained or sought a “Permit.” Almost all of the housing built recently by and for the Arab population anywhere in Israel is “illegal” under the law, none of which is any concern of the United Nations, the European Union, Haaretz and the Israeli Left, or Condoleeza Rice, as it would be if some religious Jew – under the impression that G-d had given us The Land to settle – was camping out in a tent next to an Israeli flag on a desolate hilltop somewhere in Samaria. It is essential to realize that our Go grid will not stay empty forever; the situation on the ground is not static. If we do not continue placing our human markers on The Board we have been given for an eternal inheritance, the other guys will not wait around. They will keep on Go-ing until they, G-d forbid, by intent or by circumstances, surround us. And if someone suggests that we don’t have enough human markers on The Board to win The Game, I say that we do, and I know where to find plenty in reserve.

After these rapid ruminations, we joined the others, climbing through the (now empty) water tunnels, and, at last on the top of this leveled off high hill, we could see what was left of this imperial palace that Herod built to glorify himself. And we could take pride in a poignant postscript. In the year 66 of the Common Era and again in 132, this pleasure dome became a fortress for the “Zealots” who fought the Romans. (It’s important to get our terminology straight: if you were or are a Jew fighting to preserve our monotheistic religion, you are a “Zealot.” If you are a human hand grenade today, you are a “militant.” Please keep the distinction clear in your mind.) And so, the water tunnels became an assault network to attack our persecutors. In addition to the hot and cold bath houses, a mikvah was added. And yes, in one corner of what had been the palace, we could stand in the ruins of a first or second century synagogue. I thought I could make out in faint Hebrew letters on one of the walls the inscription “No talking during davening,” but I might have been imagining things.

Before returning to Jerusalem, we made a little detour and to eat our lunch in the pretty community of Tekoa, near but not on the site of its ancient namesake. A few local families had joined together and opened a shop in which they manufactured and sold olive oil, where one could buy hot and cold drinks, and, in the near future, sandwiches. We got to sit and chat with some of the fascinating people with us and then to get a tour of the olive oil making facility, after which, many of us bought some oil, although I was careful not to buy the harif (spicy) variety. I figure that life in these environs can be harif enough, without adding it to one’s oil. Earlier, Ezra (remember Ezra?) had mentioned to us that because of the new road, the travel time from Jerusalem to Tekoa had been reduced by two thirds. And, not surprisingly, real estate value in this sleepy little town had sky-rocketed. All this, despite the fact that the current government could well try (they will not succeed!) to give away this part of our inheritance.

There are those today who, perhaps because they are overly focused on the here-and-now and not on the big picture, or perhaps because they do not take to heart how we fared in The Land when we had Kings, take an overly pessimistic view of the current Situation. Then, we had a brilliant leader, a courageous warrior, an orator, a master builder, and a delusional psychotic who murdered many people, including some near and dear. Now, we just have an inept, possibly corrupt, mediocrity, whose boldest action to date has been to stop combing his hair over his bald spot. (Maybe he took all that money for some unsuccessful hair transplants?) But his wife is alive and well; in fact, she is a successful artist, whose reputation will outlive his. His sons are also alive and well, living………outside The Land. It is unlikely that I will be tortured for writing this critique. All we need are enough hands raised during the next election – assuming he makes it that long – to get rid of him. (Your hands could be the deciding votes!)

So while physically Barbara, Natania, and I are living “before Herodion,” time-wise we are living and thriving after that structure and so many like it: the Parthenon, the Colisseum, the Aztec temples have all fallen; unlike the “Sukkah of David,” their civilizations will not rise again. It is now almost four weeks after this tiyul. We began counting “sefirat haomer,” the fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot. We have commemorated Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazicharon and celebrated Yom Haaztmaut (the subject of the next post, G-d willing). Day #33 meant Lag B’omer (still another topic). The counting continues. I am getting up early now to get to the morning minyon; I am saying Kaddish for my cousin Hank (no closer family member available) who died last week at the airport on his and Jane’s way to visit The Land for the first time. As I walk up Hagitit at 5:30 in the morning, the sun is rising to the east. If I return for the afternoon prayers, the sun will be dipping behind the hills between us and Jerusalem, no longer a painfully desolate city. There is nowhere I would rather be.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Twenty Two Years from Today

Have you ever been in a situation in which you were overhearing a conversation, discussion, or argument between two people, and you wanted to jump in, but you decided not to because you hadn’t been invited? Here is an argument that I was thinking about in the past weeks as the sirens blew in The Land first for Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron and the barbecues blazed for Yom Haatzmaut. In January 2006, Barbara and I were headed to Israel for what would be our “pilot trip,” our attempt to figure out where we wanted to live once we made aliyah. We were flying on Israir, a less expensive, fewer frills airline. This plane was quite small, with two seats on either side of the aisle. We were sitting all the way in the back, the next to last row before the toilets and the kitchen. Two men, not together, came aboard and sat down in the one row behind us. They looked at each other; both men were wearing black yarmulkes and were dressed similarly: white shirts and dark pants. They began a conversation, and it would seem that they would have a lot in common. Up to a point yes, but there was one enormous difference between them: one of them had been living in Beit Shemesh for many years; the other one considered his neighborhood in Brooklyn to be the center of the Jewish world. So what might have been an interesting discussion about Jewish law, something to pass the many hours on the plane, turned into a heated discussion about Zionism.
Now I have “this thing” about yeshiva education, or at least some of its products. Generally speaking, the specific focus in yeshivas around the world is a close examination of Jewish texts, concentrating on the Talmud Bavli. This massive work is a compilation of discussions held in the major academies in Babylon over a period of 300 years, which attempt to clarify and amplify what is found in the Mishnah, itself a compilation of the oral tradition which we understand was given to Moshe at Mount Sinai. The importance of this work in Jewish life cannot be overstated. But from any point of view, the Talmud Bavli must rank as one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments, perhaps the greatest sustained collective intellectual achievement in human history, in terms of its willingness to look at any subject dispassionately, exhaustively, and comprehensively, whether or not there seemed to be any immediate, practical application. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone who spent his years in such a study would be familiar with world literature, music, philosophy, or science. But to my jaundiced eye, it seems reasonable to expect that any yeshiva bocher, if nothing else, would be able to think his way out of a box, to present a cogent, coherent case for or against something, not one that a child could demolish in two minutes.
So what was I to do when I heard this Brooklyn bocher on the plane (remember the plane?!) presented this line of reasoning why Jews shouldn’t live in Israel. He asked the Beit Shemesh guy how many Israelis have been killed in wars or terrorist attacks since 1948. (The current answer is about 24,000, including chayalim and civilians.) That proves it! They would all be alive if they lived in Brooklyn! I had this sudden urge to shoot this fool and put him out of his misery. But I kept my piece; after all, it wasn’t my argument. Incidentally, after the plane landed, Barbara and I went over to the Beit Shemesh guy and congratulated him for the calm way he dealt with the bocher. He told us that it was very, very difficult for him to keep his cool.
How do you explain to a fellow Jew that, while losing 24,000 of our brothers and sisters over the 60 year period is horrifying, it pales in comparison with losing 6,000,000 in less than ten years because those poor souls had no place to run to or hide? How can you bring “up to speed” someone who is living in Brooklyn – which is theoretically in the continental United States – but who is clueless about American history, who Breckinridge Long (FDR’s reactionary Secretary of State, who singlehandedly prevented Jewish immigration) was? Especially when this self-styled expert on what the Jewish people should be doing probably didn’t have the mathematical skills to do a cost analysis: that were talking about 400 deaths a year as opposed to 600,000. And how do you suggest, without being overly insulting, that there is something dramatically different about dying in the process of remaking a Jewish homeland as opposed to standing naked in the snow, waiting to be led into a chamber from which there would be no return?
There is, however, another line of reasoning which is perhaps more subtle but equally as compelling. Take the number 100,000. That represents approximately the increase in the Jewish population in The Land last year. Maybe the number of Jews in America decreased by 100,000 last year. Maybe not; there is no longer any way to quantify the actual Jewish population in America because there is no longer agreement as to who qualifies to be counted. But it’s not just a race, whether the Jewish population in Israel will increase faster than the same population in America will decrease. Consider how many were born here after 1948, in the only country in the world which encourages the birth of Jewish babies. How many of those precious children would never have been born if their parents had lived elsewhere, perhaps in a land of fancy homes and demographic decline?
The same official statisticians are projecting (please remember that projections are based on the assumption that events will keep occurring as they are doing now, which kind of ignores the fact that G-d is in charge) that Israel’s total population will increase to ten million, meaning seven to eight million Jews, by the year 2030 of the Common Era. By then, G-d willing, the forty two percent of the world’s Jewish population currently living here will have, slowly but surely, edged up to at least fifty percent. We will have returned. For the first time since the destruction of the First Temple in the year 586 before the Common Era, the majority of the Jewish people will be living in The Land which was promised to us.
Maybe I will be alive twenty two years from today for the Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut in 2030; that would make me 89. Statistically, the two men on the plane have a better chance of making it; both of them were considerably younger than I am. When that day comes, when, somehow, someone figures that we have reached 50.1%, will either of those two men remember their argument on the plane? And will both of them join in the celebration?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Three Days in Nissan (Day Three At the Army Base)

We all have memories that are virtually indelible, part of our mental landscape, and more often than not, they involve our children. One of mine goes back to an autumn day several weeks after Natania had started Pre-K at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus, which as some of you know is a large, sprawling school with over 700 students. On that particular day, I had to drive Natania to school. I stopped the car at the designated place in the front and watched her get out and walk towards the entrance. Her book bag was almost as big as she was. She knew where she had to go and strode purposefully off, one tiny child in a sea of big kids. I imagine the emotion that overcame me at that moment could be described as a combination of pride and…. fear. She had just finished Day Care, and there she was, starting on the path to a PH.D! I also remember collecting my entire family (my mother, my brother and sister-in-law) and bringing them to her graduation ceremony ten years later. Somehow she and her classmates had grown imperceptibly year by year, and ten years of our lives had stolen by.
And now we were sitting on a bus heading up to Michve Alon, an army base located between Karmiel and Tiberias. Improbable as it would have seemed several years before, our darling Natania was now a chayelit in the I.D.F.. She had completed her tiranoot (basic training) and her kurs Ivrit, and we would be present at a tekas siyum (completion ceremony) for the eighty young women who started with our daughter two months ago, all of whom would be shortly going to their new assignments.
We had not been “up north” since 1980, long before Natania (or Tina, for that matter) was born. That was my first time here, and we had five weeks to tour most of the country. (Flashbacks to a brief stay in Tiberias: eating freshly caught fish at a restaurant so close to the Kinneret that I could have reached over the retaining wall and gotten my hand wet; wading in that same Kinneret at night; a real-life comedy scene at a kiosk at the bus station when the attendant told me they didn’t have orange juice and was absolutely uninterested in selling me anything else; meeting a young American woman who was teaching music in a completely out-of-the-way settlement town in which she was the only non-Moroccan; the pair of sandals made from the rubber of old tires which I purchased there and still have.) Now in 2008 we were traveling on route 6, the new toll road, with signs before each exit that you will be billed for your usage at the end of every month. (I don’t know how this is done: there are no toll booths; no one seems to have a transponder on the windshield. Modern Israel. Now if they could only get the lines at the bank or the post office to function as efficiently.) Route 6 goes north-south, winding past countless Arab villages. Many of these towns are Christian or Druse, so one feels reasonably safe. The bus made one full stop, at Afula, which is not as dreary as I thought it would be. If you need to use the facilities at the terminal, the attendant will collect one shekel, which entitles you to some toilet paper. Definitely Old Israel. The bus started again, and we got off in the most middle-of-nowhere tzomet (junction) you could ever find, where we would wait for another bus to take us to the base. Total travel time? Over three hours. We finally arrived, and followed a number of chayalim and chayalot off the bus and up the hill to the base, which would under normal circumstances be impenetrable, but because of the tekas, we were waved in with a smile.
Here, without the smile, was where our daughter had spent the last two months (except when she was home for Shabbat or when she was assigned to another base for shmirah, guard duty). Here she had been yelled at by mefakdot, argued with Russian recruits, and began to make friends. Here she had done pushups, learned to shoot and maintain an M-16, eaten her meals in less than eighteen minutes, and learned to keep that M16 with her at all times. In short, she had survived the experience, most of the time, wondering why she was doing any of it.
We took a short walk around the base, and then it was time for the ceremony to begin. We stood in a little grandstand area on one side of what passed for a “parade grounds,” along with a small collection of family and friends of the “graduates.” Many of the attendees were also in the military. I assume that they understood more than I what was going on than I did. The eighty young women marched down one side of the field, made a right turn, and made a formation near us. Finding Natania in this mass of women was not difficult: she was in the same unit as a six foot five blonde Russian who towered over everyone like an enormous antenna. My surmise is that the point of the exercise was to demonstrate that the chayalot could collectively follow instructions. There was a lot of “attention,” “at ease,” “left face,” “right face” – all in Hebrew, of course. Whenever I see this kind of stuff, I invariably think of my Mr. Autote, our fifth grade gym teacher at P.S. 80, who had us spend the entire semester marching around the gym, by which time, all of us Jewish kids could do a pretty snappy “left face.” I cannot say that the tekas was in and of itself very stirring to a bystander, but it was certainly meaningful to the participants, all of whom had finished what was probably the hardest two months of their lives. The strangest part of the ceremony was when the soldiers stood at attention in formation and their mefakdot walked through the ranks and, one by one, seemingly at random, went to each girl and cut off the “trainee” ribbon from her uniform, giving each girl a playful punch in the arm. All of a sudden, these same people-in-charge who had spent the last two months yelling at everyone and docking them time for seemingly minor infractions were trying to be friendly. (After the ceremony was over and we were walking around the base, a young woman who reached somewhere on my chest approached us and asked – in decent English – if we were Natania’s parents. She told us that she lived in Kfar Adumim, a small neighboring community. Only afterwards did I find out that she was an M.M. [a rank above a mefakedet.] We realized that all the women-in-charge were girls, younger than Natania and half her size.)
The ceremony was over. A few outstanding chayalot were honored; the obligatory “throw your hat in the air” was performed as well as the “let’s form a big circle and do some pushups.” One by one, we got to meet the young ladies with whom Natania had made friends on the base: a few Americans and others who spoke English as a second language. Each one was apprehensively waiting to hear where and to what she would be assigned. There was one tiny person from California, Shira, who was hoping to get into Search and Rescue. She had relatives here, but her family was back in America. She, like most of the women in the program, was a “bodedet” (lone soldier) who, for whatever reason, had chosen to come and join, as I so often describe it, the first Jewish army since the time of Bar Cochba. Two days earlier, I was helping assemble packages destined for Lone Soldiers, and here they were! Perhaps someday the socks that “Packages from Home” (project coordinator, Shira), sends out weekly will grace the feet of little Shira from California.
We walked around with Natania explaining what happened in each of the buildings on the base. Soon it was time to leave; we had wangled a ride back to the tzomet with a woman who was serving as temporary mom for one of the lone soldiers. We waited there for almost an hour for the bus back to Jerusalem, through Afula and the many Arab villages, now seen in the evening light. Total travel time both ways: over six hours. Total time at Michve Alon: two and a half hours. Amount of satisfaction: more than I could ever measure.