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… as in “good.” — Modern Hebrew for Beginners

If I could bring back those I love who have died, I would.  If I could save those I love who are sick, I would.

But I can’t.

What I can do is express my love to those I love.

Is it foolish to assert that I love humanity?

A voice in my head says, “Yes, you’re a fool.  ‘Humanity’ is an abstraction.  Maybe you love the idea of loving all humanity.  Perhaps you long to see yourself as someone capable of feeling such an all-encompassing love.  But the real you is infinitely more parochial.  You love your family, your friends, sometimes even yourself.  All else is a beautiful coat you are trying to wear, which does not belong to you, does not fit you, and looks ridiculous on you.”

And yet I’m telling you, here, that I love the miraculous temporary rebukes to entropy that people are.  (Is such a love even part of what makes me human?)  I feel that love so strongly that I am compelled to enter a new world of partial strangeness, so that I may try to become, at least in part, a stranger to the complacent me, to the passive me.

I read about Pinchas, in the heat of his righteous contempt, committing horrible murders — and about this character, “God,” rewarding Pinchas for these acts — and I think to myself, “That’s not me; that’s the Other.”  But this new-ish, strange-ish, Jew-ish me suspects that my response cannot end there, in complacency and passivity.  That might make me feel better about myself, for a while, but it will not make life better for those I love.  Whereas to engage with the story — to seek to draw meaning from it — may, just may, point a modest way forward.

If I do not love Pinchas, does that make me Pinchas?  In faith, I don’t yet know.


A dog doesn’t want me to be typing right now.  We’re at the Vermont home of my wife’s oldest brother, Denry, and his wife, Chris, and their daughter, Nadya.  They have two goats, one of whom has miraculously recovered from a complete de-horning, and two very friendly dogs (and, I think, two cats — they’re reclusive).

One of the dogs just licked my elbow.  At least, I’m hoping that was a dog.

Amazingly, our Israel trip happens in less than two weeks!  I have transliterated my parsha by listening repeatedly to an audio recording that Rabbi Creditor made for me on my phone.  Now I must use my rusty ear-training skills to add the music, or “trope,” again from the rabbi’s recording.  He sings much more beautifully than I will, but I’ll do my best.  In his voice, the trope sounds hopeful, joyful, uplifted — quite a contrast with the actions being described.  It sounds neither minor nor major, but in some kind of ancient musical mode.  And yet how the tune ends is on a note that I would call suspended — if it were in a typical Western key, the last note would be the second tone in the scale.  The effect, on me at least, is a feeling that the tale has not yet been fully told.

For much of my life I have felt as though I am living out, in a kind of passive way, someone else’s story.  Things happen to me, and to others, and I have hoped only not to make things worse with my actions.  It is as if my biblical namesake had simply broken the walls of Jericho and made a big mess for everyone else to clean up.  My reading of the Torah, including this bar mitzvah prep, is calling on me to act — to risk involvement in the world.

When we Jews leave the margins, do we break things?  Are we the goat in the china shop?  I want healing, and I want to keep my ironic horns — so what, O God of Pinchas and Moses, of Benjamin Netanyahu and David Grossman, am I to do?

A hunch: God wants me to be typing right now.


In Modern Hebrew for Beginners, a book I just bought at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley, a footnote says:

aleph and ayin are pronounced with a stoppage of the air flow, much like the initial sound in “oh oh.”

I once interviewed Michael Tilson Thomas, and asked him what he does in the moments before he begins conducting a piece.  By way of answer, he inhaled deeply.

If I am correct in gathering that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet has no sound at all, then that gives me some confidence that how I feel as I approach my bar mitzvah in Israel — as if suspended, momentarily breathless, between two worlds — is not inappropriate.

We think of the newborn baby’s scream as her first act outside the womb, but mustn’t she have preceded that with a deep intake of breath?

Israel was a place I was raised to hate; I am going there soon with loved ones.  Who will I be once I’m there — the child I was, the man I’ve been, or something new?

My bar mitzvah parsha — the Torah portion that I will recite and respond to — concerns a zealot named Pinchas.  He committed an abhorrent act of violence — and for this was rewarded, by God, with the covenant of peace.  Pinchas’s actions in this story, and God’s, make me weep.  The zealots of our day grind our dreams into ashes.  How will we respond?  How will I respond?

I was raised on ideology; I am trying to go forward, instead, in faith.  This seems hard.  The terrain ahead looks strange.  Because it is.  Because I am not there yet.

I cannot imagine myself all the way there.  I must go there.  I must be there.

In the meantime, I catch my breath, I say “Oh oh” — and I prepare, as best I can, to take a step forward, across the chasm between before and now, between them and us.


Next Month in Jerusalem

Next month I become a man, at least symbolically, when I will have my bar mitzvah in Israel, with my wife and son and a lovely group of fellow travelers.  My dear friend the Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, who is leading the trip (and bringing his own beautiful family) has explained to me that when I turned 13 (39 years ago last month) I technically became a bar mitzvah: that is, no ceremony is required by Jewish law or tradition for the transition to adulthood to take place.  You just … become a grownup overnight.

And yet there is, for me, a deep emotional resonance in contemplating this occasion, however gratuitous it might seem.  Why I feel this way is still not totally clear to me.  Nor do I want it to be, yet.  How can I feel those feelings before I am in the actual time and place?  But at the core is an awareness that the real, actual me will be taking this journey — not a reflection, or a character, or a type.  The book of my life has not yet been published, and my capacities have not yet been fully measured.  And I sense that I wouldn’t have any way of knowing — or feeling — these things if I were traveling alone.

I can be myself when I am with others with whom I share a deep bond.  If I have learned anything in my 52 years of boyhood, it is that.

Come with me to Israel!

250px-locationisraelsvgFrom July 13-24, 2011, I’ll be joining my friend Rabbi Menachem Creditor (of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley) on a trip to Israel — my first ever (and his umpteenth)!  And we’d love you to join us!  Our goal will be to have authentic encounters (the activity prescribed by the late “I-Thou” philosopher Martin Buber) with a wide range of Israelis, and I fully expect minds to be blown.  (Is that why they make yarmulkes?)

Below is a (provisional) itinerary, to give you a sense of the trip’s scope.  For more info, please email Vicki at

Wednesday, 13 July – Israel Bound!

  • Depart on overnight flight to Israel

Thursday, 14 July – When You Come Into the Land (Deut. 26:1)

  • Arrival at Ben Gurion Airport (today’s program depends on arrival time)
  • Ascent to Jerusalem
  • Gaze upon the Old City of Jerusalem from the Haas Promenade, standing where Abraham stood at the dawn of Jewish history; take in the breathtaking view
  • Hotel check-in and welcome dinner
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Friday, 15 July – Jerusalem of Old

  • In the Kotel Tunnels, walk alongside the Western Wall’s massive foundation stones
  • Tour the Southern Wall Excavations and learn about the ancient Temple at the Davidson Center
  • Travel through many centuries as you tour the Jewish Quarter
  • Return to the hotel to prepare for Shabbat
  • Kabbalat Shabbat at a scenic overlook or a choice of local synagogues
  • Shabbat dinner at the hotel
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Shabbat, 16 July – Shabbat in Jerusalem
Parashat Pinhas

  • Shabbat services at a choice of neighborhoods synagogues (suggestions, walking instructions to be provided)
  • Shabbat lunch at the hotel
  • Shabbat rest, relaxation at the pool
  • Havdalah with Rabbi Creditor
  • Free evening in Jerusalem
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Sunday, 17 July – Those Who Made a Difference

  • Visit the Memorial Museum, the Children’s Memorial, and the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem
  • Take a sobering walk through the history of the Jewish State at the Har Herzl Military Cemetery
  • Stumble across many authentic archeological finds in a hands-on dig through archeological matter from under the Temple Mount
  • Free evening in Jerusalem OR Evening program with a Jerusalem Masorti congregation
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Monday, 18 July – Into the Desert

  • Visit the fascinating Jo Alon Center for Bedouin Culture near Lahav for an in-depth introduction to this desert culture and some Bedouin hospitality
  • Visit Ben Gurion’s Hut in Sde Boker for personal insight into the life of this outstanding Zionist leader and Israel’s first prime minister
  • Walk through the beautiful nature reserve at the Ein Avdat Oasis
  • Dinner at the field school
  • Overnight: Sde Boker Field School

Tuesday, 19 July – Freedom Fighters or Fanatics?
17 Tammuz

  • Early departure for the Dead Sea Region
  • Ascend by cable car to Masada. Tour this impressive excavation and discuss the terrible dilemma faced by its Jewish population during Roman times
  • Enjoy a walk through the beautiful Ein Gedi Nature Reserve to the waterfall and review the biblical story of kings David and Saul “on site”
  • Stop for a dip and mud baths at Mineral Beach on the amazing Dead Sea
  • Travel north through the Jordan River Valley to the Galilee
  • Hotel check-in and dinner
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Ma’agan Guest House

Wednesday, 20 July – The Golan Heights

  • Travel through the Golan Heights by jeep (Shvilim), off the beaten path, and gaze down over the Galilee as the Syrians once did
  • See how robots are used to milk cows at Kibbutz Avnei Eitan
  • Return to the hotel to enjoy a Lake Kinneret swim
  • Free evening on the Tiberias promenade
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Ma’agan Guest House

Thursday, 21 July – The Northern Mediterranean Coast

  • At Agam Hahula (Hula Lake) ride family golf carts around the lake and learn about the many species of birds that migrate through Israel each year
  • Glide down the Jordan River in a kayak
  • Tour the synagogues, courtyards, and shops of the mystical city of Tzefat
  • Meet with a Tzefat kabbalistic artist in his gallery to explore Jewish mysticism through the prism of his creations
  • Hotel check-in
  • Dinner in the kibbutz dining room
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Hanaton

Friday, 22 July – In the Footsteps of Sages

  • Take a tour of Kibbutz Hanaton
  • Explore the magnificently excavated ancient city of Tzippori, home to Rabbi Judah the Prince; discover ancient beauty and evidence of a community in which Jews and Romans coexisted peacefully
  • Travel south for the ascent to Jerusalem
  • Kabbalat Shabbat at Robinson’s Arch
  • Shabbat dinner at hotel
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Shabbat, 23 July – A Heavenly Shabbat
Parashat Mattot

  • Shabbat services at a choice of neighborhoods synagogues (suggestions, walking instructions to be provided)
  • Shabbat lunch at the hotel
  • Shabbat rest, relaxation at the pool
  • Summary session and farewell dinner at the hotel
  • Havdalah with Rabbi Creditor
  • Depart for the airport

Sunday, 24 July – A Temporary Departure

  • Arrive in USA
  • Begin planning your next Israel trip with Rabbi Creditor!

We Shall Have To Show the World

Golda Meir, circa 1948:

“It would be more than foolish to expect that we can live here in comfort and in peace and not do everything for the Arab minority,” she remarked.  “We have no desire to be a master race and have people of a much lower standard among us.  Look, we shall have to show the world how we are making up for our 2,000 years of suffering as a minority not by emulating what was done to us but by isolating every single method of making people suffer and doing away with each of these methods, one after the other.”

[From Golda, by Elinor Burkett, p. 140.]