Monday, August 24, 2009

Pagan Gods and Phantoms

It’s a long way aesthetically (down) and spiritually (up) from the glories of the pagan Acropolis to the one functioning but very bland synagogue in Athens, another part of our full-day tour of the city. Our bus driver left us off several blocks away and, led by our effervescent guide in her flowing white sun dress, we walked through an old neighborhood up to the Greek version of a machsom (checkpoint) guarding the street on which the functioning beit knesset and another one, which may or may not be in use, were located.
Yes. Jews have lived in Athens from before the time when the Parthenon was built until the present. And yes. There are Jews living in Athens today. (Although in the nineteenth century when was Athens itself was almost deserted, there were no Jews in the city.) In fact, on the forthcoming Shabbat there would be the celebration of a bar mitzvah; and instead of having a relatively small minyan, there would be a good size crowd. Almost on cue, a young lad entered the synagogue, wearing the kind of rayon yarmulke that one finds at the entrance to many synagogues world-wide, for use by those male visitors who arrive without one. He was the star of the show, the bar mitzvah boy to-be, and those of us assembled were mighty glad to see him and made our excitement known. And that’s all I remember about the synagogue.
Now we know that every shul isn’t going to be visually interesting (although I’ve been in shteibels which are remarkable by their sheer decrepitude). And we are familiar with Jewish houses of worship which are physically gorgeous but, shall we say, somewhat lacking in spiritual enthusiasm (I was told about one temple which spent so much money on its building that the congregation couldn’t afford to pay for a rabbi). There are times, though, when the enthusiasm is great, but the pockets are shallow. The beit knesset I hang out in, Mussar Avicha, is less than opulent. But it’s one of over forty in Maale Adumim, a community of less than forty thousand Jews; and it serves a relatively small, mostly Anglo congregation who insist on using the traditional Ashkenazic order of prayers. So we do the best we can. But here we were standing in what has become by default the main synagogue in all of Greece, built – I assume in a wild burst of optimism – in 1935 and refurbished more recently, and would it have been so terrible to put a little spirit in the renovation? As it is, the interior is as exciting as the aforementioned rayon yarmulke. Somebody was standing in the front of the shul and giving a presentation. At some point thereafter, a number of us were standing outside the building, looking across the street at the other shul. That one had a beautiful pale blue stucco exterior, but it was closed. Again, I do not know if it is ever open for business: we were told no during the presentation, but the pamphlet we received said yes. If we’re ever in Athens on a Shabbat, we’ll let you know.
The standard question: (in unison) Why do they need two shuls in Athens? In addition to the usual answer, having to do with our natural contrariness, there were two distinct Jewish communities in Greece. The original settlers became known as the Romaniote Jews, and they spoke Judeo-Greek. By the end of the fifteenth century, a massive wave of Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula, arrived. They, of course, spoke Judeo-Espagnol, more commonly known as Ladino. (Do you notice a pattern here? From before the Common Era, Jews have been unwilling or unable to speak plain old-fashioned vanilla Hebrew, preferring Aramaic, or Romaniote, or Ladino, or Judeo-German, a/k/a Yiddish. Modern Hebrew is being overwhelmed with loan words, mostly from English. In Ulpan, when there were two possibilities or choices, we did not say, yesh breira, but yesh optsiah [option]. Recently, when I wanted to purchase a flash drive on which to store these articles, I asked my buddy Ron what they were called here in The Land. Sure enough, I went to a store and asked for a disconki; [repeat that a few times, slowly] they guy knew exactly what I wanted and showed me where they were. More on this topic some other time.)
There was one more place for us to go, the Jewish Museum – not the large, well-funded one in New York, with changing, temporary exhibits – but the little one in Athens which had a ‘table of contents’ similar to many other such institutions. In other words, you know exactly what you will find inside: ceremonial items, uniforms and costumes, photographs of buildings no longer extent and people no longer alive. I was reading the caption next to one of the photographs (in English), which related how in one community, the women would assemble in a courtyard after Shabbat was over and roast pistachio nuts together. From the caption and the photograph, I could almost imagine being there, smelling the pistachios as I smelled roasting chestnuts in New York. The story was told in the first person with great emotion by a woman who lived sometime in the past. The museum itself was the collective memory of a community that lived sometime in the past. Is that all? Are we merely a world-wide collections of communities that existed sometime in the past. Maybe if we had all the Madoff-money that never existed, we could create a series of museums for each of the communities that once did exist, but not anymore. Put aside communities like Radin and Salonika, where we were exterminated; don’t consider Tunis or Algiers where we were asked to leave – not so politely. Just concentrate on communities in America which were abandoned by choice: How about Deadwood, South Dakota, where several hundred Jews lived and thrived in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, many of whom are buried in Hebrew Hill, the Jewish section of the Mount Moriah Cemetery – where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are the most famous of its ‘residents.’ But even closer to home: Brownsville, Jersey City, the Grand Concourse. How about a museum for the Jewish community from the Moshulu Parkway area of The Bronx, where, as you all know by now, I grew up. Now, while there are hundreds or even thousands of us left to remember the Nathan Strauss Jewish Center, Schweller’s Delicatessen, Jack Ashwall’s ices, or Mrs. Pearl Thaler, the Principal of P.S/J.H.S. 80, where we all went to school and where our lives were shaped. Before varieties of senility cloud are memories, perhaps we should record our recollections. Somewhere in volume four of Proust’s work, Swann (Charles Swann, an important character who is considered ‘Jewish’ in French society, although, if I remember correctly, only his father was Jewish) is described as a ‘connoisseur of phantoms.’ In my view, if all we are is what we used to be, then we are little more than apparitions; we have reduced ourselves to siphoning our memories to fuel our lives.
I was curious as to what Chryssa, a young Greek woman who came of age after the colonels had come and gone, thought of this museum, and so I asked her. We weren’t able to finish our conversation, what with all of the good folks in the group wanting her attention, but I got out of her a sense of pride that such a museum existed, as a tribute to what the Jewish people had contributed to Greek society – although the museum did not single out, nor can I think of any specific Greco-Jews who were world-renowned. Of course, she had not visited an array of similar tributes, as many of us have, nor would our present and our future be of such immediate concern to her, as it would to us. Almost everyone in our group is now living in Israel, and those who aren’t have thoughts or plans to do so. I began to explain to her that I and the collective ‘we’ of the Jewish people were too much alive to be limited to the insides of some plexiglass cases; but at that point in our discussion, somebody else had a question for her, and our conversation came to an end.
It was time to return to the Golden Iris which would sail the long way to Lavrion, where we would meet up with our guide and our tour bus again. Our tour leader, Carole Cremer, had ordered a healthy quantity of wine for our group, and for reasons best known to her, decided to have it served that night. So our dinner was especially mellow, and as there was plenty left over, a few bottles were quietly removed for use later.

There isn’t much to see in Lavrion, and I have no idea why our ship was going to stop there, except it was on the way to Santorini. If anyone wants to talk about a community that had one brief moment of glory and then became submerged in complete obscurity, here’s your example. In the glory days of ancient Greece, Lavrion was the center of the silver mining industry that provided the material wealth for the rise of the Greek city states. And then, nothing. The only historical site of any note in this area is the ancient amphitheater; so we wound up there, sitting on rows of hard stone seats, the same ones which were in use – perhaps a little smoother back then – more than two thousand years ago. The one question I had for Chryssa was, what was on the playbill? Did a theater like this one serve for the final rehearsals, as theaters in Philadelphia or New Haven do today prior to the Broadway opening? Was this the equivalent of summer stock? Did the people sitting in this amphitheater see the same plays and the same casts as one would have seen in Athens? She didn’t know; no one seems to know, and there’s no way of finding out. We have the names of the three dramatists and the one writer of comedies, a small sampling of their work, and that’s all. I can’t believe that they were the only playwrights, essentially working in a vacuum. If you were to look up the Wikipedia article on Elizabethan theater for a comparison, you would find the names of almost ninety ‘playwrights’ (some of them were playwrights like I’m a playwright; some of them specialized in writing certain parts of plays and worked in collaboration with others in an assembly line approach, a few of them are familiar to general students of English literature.) Only a relatively small percentage of Elizabethan drama was ever printed and has survived; still the number of plays we have is about six hundred instead of the twenty or thirty from the Greek theater. Whether or not the Greek playwrights were working alone, one in a generation, we are working with a vacuum in understanding their world, and these benches in Lavrion would maintain their stony silence for the rest of their days.
Anyway, that was the last question I was able to ask Chryssa. Her role as tour guide was over. She headed back on the tour bus, and we returned to our ship for lunch. Some of us ventured forth in the afternoon to see what there was to see in the town itself, which wasn’t much, the highlight being some coffee at a local establishment, whereupon we returned to the ship for dinner.
I believe I have previously described the plentitude of victuals available on the Golden Iris, all set out buffet style, like the ‘smorg’ at a simcha, so you have to pass by everything – and you’re hungry, so everything looks especially good – with a plate in your hand, and you’ll try a little of this and a little of that, and just maybeeeeeee, a little of that over there, until there’s no more room on your plate. Of course, you can come back a second time – or even a third time – for whatever you missed on your first pass through. I am proud to say that I was resolute. The only way that I was going to make it through this cruise without serious damage to my waist line was to set a one plate limit for all meals. No seconds, except to get a few pieces of fruit for later. Fortunately for all, the parve desserts were only fair to middlin’. The result: I gained only one half a pound during the eight days we were away. Not bad.
The formal entertainment on our cruise was avoidable, and we were required to do something which is completely foreign to most people under the age of forty: entertain ourselves. This meant that a bunch of us would take some leftover bread from dinner and, as twilight beckoned, hike up to one of the decks on the side of the ship to watch the gulls and other sea birds following the ship across the Aegean. We would toss small pieces of bread over the side and measure the success rate of the feathered followers in retrieving these morsels. It may not sound very exciting, but this is a perfect way to spend an evening after you have been out touring all day. One night, about nine of us were sitting around a table with a bottle or two of wine on one of the lounge decks which faced the back of the ship. There we remained under the stars, drinking and chewing the fat. None of us had come from ‘religious’ backgrounds; two of the women had been competitive athletes, one in running and the other in field hockey; in each of the married couples, if you needed anything fixed you would need to speak to the lady of the house, but if you were hungry, you were better off talking to the husband. On and on, until sleep overtook us and we retired to our cabins for some zzzzzzzzz’s before our next day’s excursion.
Our final port of call was Santorini, and in order to understand what this island is about, you have to perform the following mental exercise. (Look; up to now, I’ve been doing all the work!) Imagine that you’re at the beach, or if that’s too much trouble, in a sand box. You create a mound, let’s say three feet long and one foot high, more or less round in shape. Now scoop out most of the mound so that you’re left with a big crescent and a few small patches where the other side used to be. That’s what this haven for tourists looks like today: one side has the kind of coastline and beach you would see in most places and the other side, a steep cliff down to the blue Aegean. Thirty five hundred years ago, this was a perfectly normal looking island; and then ‘Mother Nature’ chose to intervene – with the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, five times bigger than the famous explosion at Krakatoa – blowing the island to smithereens. That has been the bane of existence for the Greek island to this day, volcanoes and earthquakes, perhaps their punishment for perfecting idol worshipping. Thirty years ago, one could have gone to Santorini with a suitcase of American dollars and bought a significant chunk of the island. Today? That same suitcase would buy you a week’s stay at one of the better hotels on the posh (cliff) side. The entire island seems to be a tourist trap, a breathtakingly gorgeous one, but let the buyer beware. What I remember most about the island was getting onto it and off of it. Everywhere else we went, we were able to sashay off the gangplank onto terra firma. Here, ships had to anchor in the harbor, meaning you had to get on a small motorboat to reach dry land. This we did, and as Barbara and I were among the last to get on board (the motorboat would make several trips back and forth to accommodate all the passengers), we wound up sitting backwards at the rear of the boat. Anybody ride backwards on a bus recently? Imagine that you’re on a boat which is rocking with the waves AND you’re sitting backwards, and you’re from a noble lineage of confirmed and certified landlubbers. I am getting nauseous just thinking about it, even now. I made it through the ten minute ride, but just barely. Safely on land – where there are not supposed to be any nasty waves – we spent the next several hours wandering around the tourist towns, checking out some beautiful vistas and a lot of stores with stuff I wasn’t going to buy. The final tourist town was a long shop-lined street – sort of like running the gauntlet – which was the only route to the way down: you can walk down a long series of steps; you can do the same thing on the back of a donkey; or you can join the long line waiting to get on a cable car. As you might expect, we opted for the third choice, having stopped beforehand for some liquid refreshment at a little place which looked down over the harbor, and where they were playing a CD of a tenor in fine voice singing some Italian songs. It’s amazing what we choose to remember.
Our turn came and we rode down the cable car, from which we could see people and donkeys going up and down the winding trail. Shabbat would be soon approaching, so all of our group was going one way – down. We found the motorboat going back to our ship – as opposed to one of the other ships in the harbor – and making sure NOT to ride backwards, we arrived back at the Golden Iris.
One amazing thing about being in Israel which is so important and equally hard to explain is how The Land allows the ‘pintele yid’ (very hard to translate: probably ‘the little spark of being Jewish’ would work) to survive and flourish. You can be riding the Egged bus from Maale Adumim to Jerusalem, and a young woman gets on dressed in shorts and a tank top; she sits down and pulls out a volume of psalms and begins reciting them earnestly. The dining room on the Golden Iris was filled with the same people as it had been all week. But now it was Friday night, and many men who had been bare-headed all week were now wearing kippot, and many women were dressed a little nicer – because it was Shabbat. During the week, our morning minyan, basically AACI people, had about twenty or twenty five men (there was a separate Sephardic minyan of about the same size.) Shabbat morning in our combined minyan, we may have had as many as 100 men and a very large contingent of women across a makeshift mehitzah. For the next to last time, my faithful group of leviim (all three of them) joined me at the bar in the lounge to wash my hands so I (and now one other guy who showed up) could recite the priestly blessing. The joy of Shabbat would soon be mingled with inevitable regret that our eight days of being pampered was fast coming to an end. That’s what’s wrong with all vacations: they come to an end.
Carole Cremer had arranged for the AACI contingent to have a special third meal in the late afternoon (after lunch and the compulsory nap), after which Daniel Schwartz gave the last of his lectures to us. There was almost an hour left before the evening service and ushering out Shabbat. It was suggested that we spend the time together, and that perhaps some of us could get up and say a few words about themselves. Absolutely amazing! Two of the women worked as museum curators; another was a published novelist; another was a practitioner of ‘natural’ medicine who had been living in Egypt. On and on. Eight days was not enough time to get to know more than a select number of people out of the fifty seven in our group. Next time. (After the trip was over, I found out that one of the rabbis in our group had majored in classics at Cambridge.)
It was time for havdalah, saying ‘bye-bye’ to Shabbat, and then it was time to start getting ready to leave the boat the next morning. By midnight, the ship’s hallways were crowded with luggage that would be carried off as soon as we docked at Haifa. Our morning minyan was especially early, as was breakfast, and then we were saying ‘bye-bye’ to The Golden Iris and all the nice people we had met – some of whom we would be in touch with, some we wouldn’t. But we had one more task to perform, one more place to stop. DUTY FREE!!!! For there waiting for us were the three bottles I had prudently purchased on our way out: the Balvenie (Scotch), the Bushmills single malt (Irish), and the Jack Daniel’s Silver Select (Kentucky). Who says the nations of the world can’t get along? Through Customs and onto the bus to retrace our steps. Stops at Modi’in, Jerusalem, and the mall at Maale Adumim, from whence we took a monit back to our apartment, where Mimi ignored us for at least fifteen minutes before she decided that she was hungry and she had better negotiate with us about that.
Someone might inquire of me, what do you have left from your trip besides memories (and a lot of whiskey and some hand cream. And some digital photographs)? To which I would answer: there are memories that are real and memories, like Swann’s, that are phantoms, unconnected to anything but a feeling of nostalgia. Anything which helps you make sense out of your life is real, and anytime you meet people with whom you make a real connection, you have spent your time wisely, my friend.

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