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Dispatches from Israel

Two Abrahams

The Old City of Jerusalem is a taut knot at the center of multiple strands of spiritual longing.  It is divided into Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian “quarters” — but when you walk through the narrow old winding streets, you quickly see that the separations aren’t so neat in a place where menorahs can easily be found for sale in the Muslim quarter.  In fact, it takes great energy and imagination to see the inhabitants as being unconnected to one another — the Jews and the Muslims and the Christians and the Armenians and the atheists and agnostics who maneuver among the uneven, foot-polished cobblestones, buying and selling, praying, chatting on a shady stoop, following in the footsteps of their savior or their sister or their ancestors.  It takes an act of will to mentally undo the knot that binds Jerusalemites together — to insist on a counter-reality in which these are clearly different types of beings, rather than fascinating varieties of one species, a species with a compulsion for crossing over.

A guy like me might easily be lulled by the Old City into a vision of a peaceful, multicultural world — until he looks up from his sweetened Turkish coffee and sees the young Israeli soldiers standing a few feet away, submachine guns hanging at their side.  And a terrible thought comes to him: They won’t shoot me — I’m a Jew.

*     *     *

I became a man on July 18 in the Negev Desert, nearly two months after my 52nd birthday.  After a dusty, head-bumpy morning of archeological digging (at the ancient city of Beit Guvrin), an afternoon visit to the spectacularly beautiful gravesite of first Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife (who hated living in the desert — but when you’re married to an icon, what are you going to do?), and a glorious, splashelicious hour or so at the Ein Avdat Oasis (a side note: Jews seems to gravitate toward baptism), we arrived at Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh.  I’d always thought of kibbutzim as basically big, socialist farms, but in reality many — like this one — have survived into the present day by turning themselves into, essentially, hotels or holiday resorts.

After a mercifully quick dinner (don’t ask), our group headed over to a large water tower that had been painted with friendly, colorful graffiti.  We climbed a metal ladder to the top, then found ourselves looking out over a dazzling desert landscape as the sun set.  It felt perfect.  Menachem Creditor, my friend and rabbi, with the help of our brilliant guide Jared, had gone to extraordinary lengths to make my bar mitzvah ceremony special.  Menachem had borrowed a Torah from a temple in Jerusalem for us to use — and amazingly this Torah had been rescued from Vilna (also known as Vilnius), Lithuania, where the grandparents of one member of our group, Michael Tarle, had fought as partisans against the Nazis.  About 265,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered by the Nazis — 95 percent of the population.

The previous day, at Yad Vashem, Michael had given a moving tribute to his grandparents, one that had us all in tears.  The fact that the Torah at my bar mitzvah happened to come from the place where Michael’s brave grandparents had lived, and fought, was a coincidence — the kind of coincidence that reminds me of something the writer Richard Price likes to say: “God is not a second-rate novelist.”

Menachem had also borrowed a guitar, and he led us in song and prayer.  Others in our group added lovely prayers and wishes for me on this occasion of my belated bar mitzvah.  (As I understand it, technically I became “a bar mitzvah” — and thus a man — when I turned 13, simply by virtue of my chronological age.  But here I am referring, of course, to the bar mitzvah ceremony, which I undertook later in life, by my own choice, and with the guidance and collaboration of Rabbi Creditor and numerous friends and family members and people in my community in Berkeley.)

I had intended to memorize my Torah parsha — the passage from The Book of Numbers, set to a musical “trope,” that had been assigned to me — but my middle-aged brain, outfitted with pre-Pentium processors, had proved unequal to that task.  So, as permitted by Rabbi Creditor, I held a “cheat sheet” over the beautiful Torah scroll (containing a transliteration of the Hebrew, as well as my musical transcription of a recording that Menachem had made for me) and sang into the desert air.  (I plan to learn Hebrew eventually as I continue my Jewish studies.)  Then I read my drasha — my personal response to my Torah parsha.

Then Rabbi Creditor said a prayer, or sequence of prayers (I was quite overwhelmed emotionally, and don’t remember all the specifics), and the sun set, and a nearby peacock cried out, and Menachem wrapped a prayer shawl around me and my wife and son and I kissed them both, and even now as I write this (in a hotel room in Sheboygan, Wisconsin) my heart seems to fill up with more than blood, more than what will end, more than all that we have lost — with what might be, with what already is.

*     *     *

The next day we traveled by jeep over the rough terrain of the Golan Heights.  It was quite bumpy.  I thought, Yesterday I became a man; today I might become a eunuch.

*     *     *

There is a McDonald’s at Masada.  This is not something I expected to find at the site where Jewish Zealots once committed suicide rather than be taken into slavery by Roman conquerors.  I resisted the urge to wander over to the counter and order a Very, Very Unhappy Meal.

Like so many of the places we visited in Israel, Masada raised feelings of incredible, and perplexing, complexity.  Were we meant to celebrate zealotry, or suicide?  Was the Israeli sense of being constantly besieged a vestige from earlier times, or a very accurate perception of present circumstances?  An Israeli man who heard me asking a long question, along these lines, of our guide later approached me and tried to explain how it feels to live one’s entire life with the daily threat of extinction; his tone was friendly, not combative — he was reaching out to me, trying to convey what life was like for him.  And in that brief encounter I felt a challenge to my self-protective attempts to separate myself from all this painful history, and the confusing present, and the terrifyingly unknowable future.

Dig down into Israel’s past and you find multiple, quite often contradictory layers of conquest and victimization.  You think you know where you stand, but you don’t: there are always more layers to uncover.  From Herod’s splashy palaces to the Golden Arches of today, dominant cultures try to make their mark — but eventually someone else ends up walking all over you.  Perhaps the best we can do is to hold hands and share the moment.

*     *     *

The Dead Sea is a place where people willingly inflict pain and discomfort upon themselves, then agree that they had a wonderful time.  It was hotter than Hell when we got there.  We rode in a little trolley pulled by a tractor that was driven by a guy who hated his job, hated his life, hated us.  We covered parts of ourselves in legendary mud that was, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, boilingly hot.  We rinsed off that mud in showers of hot, sulphurous water.  We then stepped gingerly over hot sand to the rapidly receding waters of the Dead Sea itself — which turned out to be, yes, incredibly hot (though a bit cooler as you waded in deeper).  We then did the thing you do in the Dead Sea — which is to lean back and float, on the salt-choked water, and marvel at how buoyant you have become.  This is a little bit fun until you try to stand up again — and realize that this isn’t so easy: your buoyancy seems to prevent you from shifting your weight in such a way that your feet will go back down.  So you panic a bit, and start splashing around, and get saltwater in your eyes — so that now your eyes sting (along with any portions of your skin that have been recently shaved, or scratched).  You rinse out your eyes under yet another hot shower, then stagger back to the trolley driven by the sullen, bitter man on the tractor.  In the humid, sulphur-smelling locker room, you change out of your salt-encrusted swimming suit back into your regular clothes.  You order a slushie at the little cafeteria.  You make a mental note never to visit the Dead Sea again (and perhaps to be wary of all tourist attractions that have the word “dead” in their name).  You gratefully pile into your air-conditioned tour bus, murmuring, along with everyone else, that yes, you did have a wonderful time.

*     *     *

One day we met Avraham and Ibrahim — in other words, two guys named Abraham, one a Jew from Michigan and the other a Christian Arab who has, for many decades, lived in a kind of exile from his village.

Avraham Loewenthal is a remarkable artist who does paintings inspired by the mystical Jewish writings of the Kabbala.  (The Kabbala was, of course, originally the creation of the singer-songwriter Madonna, but since then centuries of Jewish mystics have made it their own.)  Avraham was a dude in the Detroit area when he read a book called Jewish Meditation, by Aryeh Kaplan, and his mind was blown.  It’s still blowing — he moved to the spiritual city of Tzefat and for the past 10 years has been studying Kabbala and making art.  He has a wispy beard, and says “Awesome!” a lot, with such enthusiasm that you find yourself saying “Awesome!” a lot yourself, and smiling.  Avraham believes that nothing is coincidence, and that the highest purpose of humanity is to be altruistic.  I would imagine that he’d be a terrible poker player.

Much of Tzefat has seemingly attained the mystical status of a tourist trap, but Jared (as usual, the consummate guide) led a few of us to a lovely café, where we watched a woman do some weaving and sipped fruit shakes.

Our encounter with the other “Abraham” — Ibrahim Issa — came later in the day, and was a moving highlight of our trip.  We met him in what remains of his village, Bar’am.  When he was a boy, he and all the other Christian Arabs who had lived, he says, peacefully with everyone (including Jews) to that point, were evacuated by the Israeli military.  Since then Ibrahim — now 77 “and a half” years old — and the others in his community have repeatedly been told (by the Army chief, by a series of Israeli prime ministers, and even by Israel’s Supreme Court) that they have every right to return; and yet, they have not been allowed to do so, other than in occasional gatherings at their old church, which has recently been rebuilt.  His people — Maronite Christians — have lived in this region for 1,600 years.  He has been waiting 63 years to be allowed to move back.  In the meantime, his village (most of it leveled by Israeli bombardment, in some vague action of supposed retaliation) has been turned into an Israeli “national park,” where there is virtually nothing to indicate to visitors that they are walking in, and on, his ancestral land.  The public bathrooms, which we used, are located in the structure that used to be Ibrahim’s childhood home.

And yet he’s hopeful!  As Ibrahim spoke — in Hebrew, with Jared translating for us — we saw the pain that he still feels at the enforced diaspora of his community.  But when one of our group asked him whether he still expects to be allowed to return home — after 63 years! — without hesitation he says, “Yes!”  I felt this “yes” as kind of an antidote to the terse “no” I’d gotten from Barbara, the Jewish settler who’d had us in her home in the West Bank, when I’d asked her if there was anything we Americans could do to help move her region towards peace.  At the same time, Ibrahim seemed to share with Barbara a sense that it is not the vast majority of people who are causing the difficulties, but rather their leaders.  “It is perfectly reasonable that Jews, Muslims, and Christians can live together peacefully,” he said, “but the politicians cause all the problems.”

I asked Ibrahim whether he felt the irony (though that seemed a rather weak word) of his community being treated by Jews much as the Jews have been treated throughout our history.  His answer was poignant: “It definitely  happened to the Jews — that was their disaster.  And now they’re doing it to us — that’s the pain!”  Later he said, “I don’t have a relationship to the State of Israel; I love the people of Israel!”  Indeed, many of his children have served in the Israeli army.  Other children of the former inhabitants of Bar’am have become lawyers, and are working assiduously to win their cause in the Israeli legal system.  (Though one has to wonder, since the Israeli Supreme Court already told them that they could return, only to be “overruled” by the military, how much they might actually achieve this way.)

Ibrahim walked us back towards the parking lot.  He said, indicating a now-barren stretch of land, “I played right here when I was a boy.  That’s why it still burns.  I see with my own eyes every single friend I played with here.”  He said, “We can’t take up guns; the power of words is the best we can do.”  He urged us to write to the Israeli leaders with a simple message: “What’s up with Bar’am?”  He said, “I’ll pay for the stamp!”

Michael Tarle, the member of our group whose grandparents fought the Nazis as partisans, went up to Ibrahim and told him that, in the story of Bar’am, there were so many similarities to what Michael’s grandparents had experienced in Vilna.  The two men embraced.  We trudged past a sign that said, “Bar’Am National Park: Enjoy Your Visit! — Israel Nature & Parks Authority.”  As we boarded our bus, I looked over and saw an old man, still standing erect, walk slowly to his car.

*     *     *

On Friday, the day before we were due to return home, we visited the ancient city of Tzippori, which is being painstakingly excavated, and where, we were told, Jews and Romans once lived together in relative peace.  As at earlier stops on our trip, we considered the complicated and often porous membrane that has separated Jews from other cultures, and simultaneously connected them to those other cultures as well.  As Monty Python trenchantly notes in The Life of Brian, the answer to the question “What have the Romans ever done for us?” is quite lengthy, actually.

Later, on a pluralistic Masorti (a.k.a. “Conservative”) Jewish kibbutz, a woman rabbi from the States proudly showed us the mikvah — purifying ritual pool — that she has rebuilt, and now maintains, where men and women and same-sex couples are welcome at any time.  We heard from another rabbi on the kibbutz of a new generation of Israelis who are “drifting away from Judaism, because they feel it’s not theirs.”

In the evening, back in Jerusalem, we attended a shabbat service with a local Masorti congregation.  We walked through an alley, over broken glass, to get there.  The service was held in what had been built as a bomb shelter.  Rabbi Creditor and members of the local congregation led the celebration, in which we welcomed shabbat, inviting the spirit of this holy day of rest and reflection to enter us.  Beautiful children played on the floor.  Menachem led the congregation in soaring, joyful song, and even a lively dance around the room.

Welcoming shabbat in a bomb shelter — that seemed to encapsulate our Israeli experience.  The people in this room were seeking a home within a homeland that frequently makes them feel like outsiders, even as the Jewish nation struggles to find a way to feel at home itself.  Amid the songs and the prayers, I wished for a world that feels like home for all of us, and for a pluralistic Israel that can help show us the way.

My Bar Mitzvah Drasha

A few days ago I had my bar mitzvah ceremony on a kibbutz in the Negev Desert.  My wife and son and I gathered with Rabbi Menachem Creditor, his daughter Ariel, our guide Jared, and other members of our group at the top of a colorfully painted water tower.  As the sun set and a nearby peacock occasionally cried out (quite possibly critiquing me as a naive peacenik), Rabbi Creditor led us in prayer and song, and — as is the tradition — I read my drasha, a personal interpretation of and response to the Torah parsha I’d been assigned: The Book of Numbers, Chapter 25, verses 5-9.

Rabbi Creditor had asked me to include three things in my drasha:

  • The story.
  • What I thought this text might mean “without me.”
  • What I thought this text might mean “through me.”

In the near future (perhaps on the plane, if we have wi-fi), I plan to blog in more detail about that wonderful day and many others that we have experienced here in Israel.  But as we prepare to gather as a group for the last time, at our lovely hotel in Jerusalem, I thought Id share my little drasha with you.

*     *     *

Numbers 25: 5-9

And Moses said to the judges of Israel, “Each of you kill his men who cling to Baal Peor.”  And look, a man of the Israelites came and brought forth to his kinsmen the Midianite woman before the eyes of the whole community of Israelites as they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.  And Pinchas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest saw, and he rose from the midst of the community and took a spear in his hand.  And he came after the man of Israel into the alcove and stabbed the two of them, the man of Israel and the woman, in her alcove, and the scourge was held back from the Israelites.  [Translation by Robert Alter.]

The story:

The Israelites, having escaped their bondage in Egypt, have been wandering in the desert for years and years — and they’re doing a lot of kvetching.  Moses had told them he would lead them to the Promised Land, and they had expected this to happen pretty quickly.  But then God got angry at their imperfections, and so he made them get lost, and he kept them lost — for a very, very long time.  Meanwhile, there are other cults around, like the followers of Baal Peor — who keep sending their women to seduce the Jewish men — and quite understandably many of the Israelites have become Baal-Peor-curious.

Now as the Israelites have been wandering, it is not only they who have been kvetching — God himself has been getting quite testy.  He freed the Jews from slavery, and all he asks of them in return is their complete and utter devotion to him and to his many, many, many laws.  Every once in a while God decides that he’s had it with the Israelites and has a good mind just to kill them all and start again; each time, Moses talks God down, so that God just kills some of them.

So by the time we get to Chapter 25 of the Book of Numbers, everyone — including God and Moses — is tired and grouchy.  And God tells Moses that the Jews had better remain pure — not worshipping pagan gods, and definitely not sleeping with members of other cults, or else God is going to unleash a plague on them.  So what happens next?  A Jewish guy — a prince, apparently, has sex with a non-Jewish woman (a Midianite) — in the doorway to the Tent of Meeting!  Moses, despite what God has told him, does nothing (maybe because Moses’ own wife happens to be a Midianite); and the crowd of Jews just stands there watching as this blasphemous act goes on and on.  And then a man emerges from the crowd — Pinchas, son of Eleazar the priest, who is himself the son of Moses’ brother, Aaron — and spears the copulating couple through their genitals, killing them both.  And God responds to this act of violent zealotry by weakening the plague, so that “only” 24,000 people die, and rewards Pinchas, and all his descendants, with the covenant of peace.

What would this text mean without me?

The Jewish race, a people chosen by God for a vital, sacred task, must remain pure and completely pious.  God tested these people by making them wander in the desert for 40 years, during which many of them felt nostalgic for the lives they had led in Egypt, even as slaves.  They stopped following God’s rules, and they questioned whether it was so great to be a Jew, especially given how much they had been made to suffer when they’d followed God’s instructions.  The cohesion of their community was in grave danger of eroding; they were eyeing other cults, whose laws — and gods — seemed less stringent.  The Jewish man having sex with the Midianite woman seems to be a way of viscerally representing this danger of the Jews’ commingling with non-Jews.  Pinchas’s violent act — which may or may not be partly motivated by the fact that Pinchas’s own mother was not Jewish — propitiates God in his fury: Because Pinchas has taken God’s instructions seriously, and literally, God eases up on the Jews, and God elevates Pinchas and all his descendants to an honored status.  We should all be like Pinchas.

What would this text mean through me?

God forbid that we should all be like Pinchas!  Pinchas commits a reprehensible act of horrific violence against a couple … why?  Because God told him to?  Because a Jew was sleeping with a non-Jew?  I understand, somewhat, how in the context of explaining and promoting the remarkable continuity of the Jewish culture, this might serve as a cautionary tale about the challenges of sticking together in hard times (and a warning that those who don’t stick together will be stuck together).  And I realize that many things are different for me, an American Jew living in the 21st century, than for the Jews of Biblical times.  I also have an intrinsic respect for the beauty and intricacy of much of Jewish law; to be honest, I am humbled by the rigorousness with which my friends of many faiths try so hard to adhere to their laws and customs.  And I am proud to be a Jew.

But Pinchas was a zealot — and people, in his time and mine, who hate and even kill people because God told them to, are my enemies.  As human beings, we inherit from nature a capacity both for great creation and for great destruction.  Let me admit that I frequently feel both impulses inside myself.  It is my hope that at as a species we keep moving, somehow, towards the more loving aspect of ourselves.  To do this I believe that we need to have rules to help us live together more ethically, which is incredibly difficult considering the often ferocious impulses of our individual selves, as well as of our families and tribes.  But my learning with Rabbi Creditor and other members of my community has convinced me that laws — Jewish and otherwise — must be organic, must be tested and re-tested by each generation through our own experience.  I believe that to perform any act — particularly one of hatred and violence — simply because God told me to is to abrogate my responsibility as a member of civilization, and as the beneficiary of a Jewish tradition that has already offered me so much wisdom and comfort.

I believe it is my duty as a Jew to engage with this passage in the Torah — that the lesson for me is to resist the Pinchas in myself, and rather to embrace the difficult, messy task of trying to be a good person in the time and places in which I find myself.  Surrounded in this holy land by my dear family and beloved friends, I seek the strength to be gentle, the learning that will allow me to continue learning from others, and the faith that a better world may eventually come.

As a man, today, I lay down my spear, reach out my arms to The Other, and say, “Let us live together in harmony and respect.”

“Anatevka Is Our Home”

We entered Yad Vashem, the Holocaust-remembrance museum in Jerusalem, through the “Valley of Communities,” kind of a monumental stone garden.  On giant slabs of rock are carved the names of over 5,000 Jewish communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust.  The effect was disarming: Instead of trying to think of the six million individuals who were extinguished, we considered the 5,000 social entities in which they had lived together.  “Together” being a — perhaps the — characteristic condition of the human animal.  Together also, however, being how the Nazis apparently thought of us Jews: as a type, as the Other, as a mass of vermin.  As I’ve experienced it, Israelis’ collective identity vibrates in a tension between these two kinds of together — between the rich, often riotous sense of “us-ness” and the awareness that to many people, and cultures, we have been — are — “them,” or even “it.”  There is a pride — aggressive, muscular, and yet often surprisingly tender — that emerges from this dual understanding of togetherness: something like the pride, to use a colloquialism from my own country, of the “gangsta.”  Love me if you wish; hate me, and you make me stronger.

How much better than feeling oneself the victim!  In the wake of the Holocaust, and the erasure of all of those vibrant human communities, how could a new Jewish state go forward when its citizens thought of themselves as weak and devastated?  And yet, to try to forget would be a cultural self-abnegation of its own.  The people who have created (and, recently, substantially re-created) Yad Vashem perform a beautiful, essential, and profoundly challenging service: helping us to remember without robbing us of the possibility of agency.

May I be simplistic here?  How is it possible that the Holocaust happened?  How could some people hate certain other people so much as to delight in their systematic extermination?  The question is so enormous that — quite possibly in emotional self-defense — I keep leaping to another one: How, given the Holocaust, is it possible that there is still so much love in the world?  As we moved from one memorial to the next, from the “Partisans’ Panorama” to the children’s memorial to the chronological history lesson in the zigzagging galleries at the heart of the museum, I kept returning to a kind of acceptance, and challenge: This happened; so now what are we going to do?  The care with which Yad Vashem’s curators have assembled this memorial suggests a provisional answer: We will remember, but not in such a way that we become incapacitated.  We will not become the eternal victims of our victimization.

This determination — or at least one manifestation of it — was underscored as we moved through the nearby military cemetery on Mt. Herzl: grave after grave of Israeli soldiers, many of them having just escaped from Nazi persecution, only to be handed a gun and sent out to defend the nascent Jewish state.  Eventually the socialist uniformity of the older graves evolves into a motley assortment of memorials, personalized with tchotchkies (plastic ducks; two of the Seven Dwarfs; a whiskey bottle filled with sand) and photographs of the fallen.  (More-recent Israeli immigrants, particularly those from Russia, have won court cases allowing them to bring their own particular varieties of culture into the remembrance of their loved ones.)  And again, pain and destruction find a response in a tension-filled creativity.

As we stood near the cemetery exit, we became aware of rapidly thickening smoke in the air.  It later was reported that not one but three fires had been started nearby, perhaps by arsonists, resulting in the evacuation of Yad Vashem shortly after we’d left it.  Ashes fell from the sky, dusting our heads and arms, turning the sun orange.

*     *     *

Only a short time later we were visiting a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.  Our host, Barbara, a longtime resident of this community, is a petite, energetic brunette who speaks with a thick accent that delightfully reminded me of her native Queens.  She clambered onto our bus and began, without hesitation, to deliver her narrative.  She pointed out the Palestinian homes scattered outside the perimeter the settlement, and said that essentially “nothing” had been on this land before the settlers had — with their efforts — made it desirable to others (meaning the Arabs).  She expressed dissatisfaction with the term “settlement,” preferring to refer to “our community” and “our sister communities.”  She mentioned that this was the Biblical home of the prophet Amos — another implicit claim to the righteousness of the settlers’ presence here.  After ushering us into her home, past her smiling and sweaty husband whom she briskly urged to take a shower, she also took issue with the term “the Occupied Territories,” preferring to call them, simply, “the Territories.”  She fed us delicious rugelach and fruits and sodas.  She spoke of the three generations of her family who now live here.  After a time her husband re-emerged, all showered and in fresh clothes; smiling sardonically, he asked, “Anyone want to hug me now?”

These people are soldiers.  Like most Israelis (with the notable exception of many of the Ultra-Orthodox), their children must do compulsory military service.  But it goes beyond that.  When Barbara and her husband are alone in their home with the Palestinian laborers of whom she tends to speak fondly (“I invited them to my daughter’s wedding!”), they must carry a gun.  And still, I’m not conveying the full scope of their military role: one gets the sense that the Israeli government relies on them to — I can’t escape this word — occupy this bitterly contested land, so that with every added moment their presence, perhaps provisional at first, morphs into inevitability.  And the “Occupied Territories” become the “Territories,” which eventually become, simply, “Israel.”

The psychic tolls of such a way of life seem evident in the crispness of Barbara’s narrative, and in the hardness of her eyes (even as she sometimes speaks playfully of the foibles of her people: “Nobody here knows how to put out a fire!”).  I found her immensely compelling, and she also terrified me.  Family photos filled the walls — adorable children who became proud soldiers, as well as parents themselves.  She described the choice she and her husband made to move here, over a decade ago, in this way: “We could get more for less.”  She said, “We moved to the suburbs.”  When they had first arrived at the settlement, she said, the Oslo Accords had just been signed and they’d assumed that everyone would now live here peacefully.  But, of course, this peace had not held.  And their continued presence here is justified because: this land was won through a legitimate military victory; the land has rightfully been the Jews’ since Biblical times; there was “nothing” here before they put in all their hard work, and and and …  Ultimately, it came down to this: We are here.  As Barbara put it, with a smile and shrug (quoting Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof explaining why his people remain in Anatevka, their often miserable shtetl), “Anatevka is our home.”

Repeatedly, Barbara insisted that she was among the more open-minded of the settlers: e.g., she has Arab friends (all, from what I could make out, her employees, present or former).  She tended to couch her more critical comments as the opinions of others: It was “a neighbor,” not her, who had said, “I’m proud to be an obstacle to peace.”  By which, let me hasten to add, she meant a false “peace” that would end in the destruction of the Jewish state: “They’ll catch us off-guard and take over the whole place.”  She said, “I personally believe that if there was good will on both sides” — meaning Israeli and Arab — “we could live in peace.”  But she has a passionate distrust of the Palestinian leadership, a certainty that their goal is to remove the Jews from this land (at least).  She spoke — and it made me tremble — of the violent murders of two 13-year-old boys in their community.  She asked how we, as parents, would respond to such atrocities.  (“God forbid,” I said.  “God forbid,” she repeated.)

I asked her if there was some way that we Americans could help move their region toward peace.  After brief consideration, her answer came: “No.”  She went on to say that “meddling” from outside was not of use to them.  I reminded her that I had said “help,” not “meddle,” and her shrugging response told me that she clearly felt this distinction didn’t exist.  “This is not fairyland here,” she instructed us.  About why there isn’t a fence that completely surrounds the settlement, she reverted to attributing a particularly harsh opinion to others: “We’re not the animals, some would say.”

Having just come from Yad Vashem, where I had seen how my own people had been visualized as animals, I felt her statement as a sharp blow to the gut.  How horrible, to hear such hateful words spoken, and by such an obviously thoughtful person!  But a part of me resisted the easy urge merely to condemn the settlers for their actions and self-justifications.  Having lived all my life in relative comfort and tranquility in a country founded, in part, on the suffering of so many, I wondered (and wonder) whether I could really sever myself from responsibility for the continuing tragedy of the Occupied Territories (or, per Barbara, simply the Territories).  If our togetherness, as Jews and as human beings, has a hope of being the kind of togetherness that I desire, and not a togetherness that depends on accentuating the otherness of our neighbors, then I cannot completely separate myself from those, like Barbara, who patrol the contested borders while I remain far away, protected and self-righteous.  Barbara didn’t feel like one of “them”; she felt like one of us.  That’s why hearing her speak as she did about our Palestinian brothers and sisters hurt so very much.

Our Own Private Jerusalem

Last night (it’s early Sunday morning now) our group was in a park near our hotel, celebrating the end of the Jewish Sabbath.  It was the first time I have experienced this ritual, which (among other things) seeks to help you make the difficult transition from a day of rest and reflection into the tumultuous world of the other six days.  We were standing in a circle, holding hands and singing songs that were undoubtedly very old, but were new to me.  Nearby a Muslim family was picnicking, and two young girls (perhaps teenagers) laughed and seemed to play a game of tag.  Earlier, when our group had been sitting cross-legged and noshing (I alone was standing, as my hamstrings have yet to be blessed by any sort of elasticity), one of these girls had repeatedly chased the other, giggling, into and out of the periphery of our group.  I had idly thought that it seemed a bit weird that they would do this — slightly enter the space of our group — but I’d just assumed that these frolicking children were so caught up in their game that they hadn’t noticed.  But now, as we were standing and singing and swaying, this family (perhaps there was more than one), adults and kids, picked up and began streaming past us — and as they did so, several of them (including some teenaged-looking boys) seemed to mock us, crudely imitating our gestures and the sounds we were making.  It wasn’t really threatening — we’re mostly from rough-and-tumble Berkeley, after all, where an idle display of weakness can instantly rob you of your status at the Juice Bar Collective — but it did make me think, and feel.  I thought about how I’d felt so separate from the Orthodox Jews I’d encountered in the Old City.  I thought that this mocking behavior, gentle as it was, must reflect a deep, lifelong experience of feeling that you have been treated as less-than.  I thought back to when I was a child in Washington Heights in Manhattan, and would ride the Number 4 bus past an Orthodox Jewish temple and think to myself that the people in their strange clothes looked silly.  I thought, “But we’re for peace, and we hate racism!”  And then I thought, “To them this nuance is either unapparent or doesn’t matter — we are simply members of the tribe that they resent, or even despise: we are Jews in Palestine.”  I thought, “Some people hate us not because of who we are as individuals or what we have done, but because of how they think of us collectively.”  I felt an enormous chasm open between this gentle scene and the terrors that people have lived through, and died in.  I was proud to be in our group, which kept singing and swaying.  I felt the great distance between here and where I wish we were, politically.  I realized that wishing — and thinking, and hoping — are not enough, that things only change when you work for that change.  I acknowledged to myself that struggling for a peaceful coexistence in a passionate world seems daunting indeed.  I felt the strong possibility of continued and extended failure.  I thought of what a privilege it is to stand with dignity in a park with family and friends.  I missed my father.  I felt both a stranger and, somehow, a citizen of this strange land.  And I felt, and I thought, all these things at the same time.

The Muslim family had passed us and left the park.  Out of the corner of my eye I’d seen older people among them, looking weary and perhaps wary.  It was nearly dark; the Sabbath was almost over.  I glanced up at the increasingly bustling street above the park, and saw a traffic light, glowing bright, go from red to green.

*     *     *

On Friday we had spent most of the day in the Old City.  We made our way through some of the Jewish Quarter and some of the Armenian Quarter (and maybe another quarter as well) until we reached the entrance to a series of tunnels that go under the Muslim Quarter.  As we passed a guard sitting lazily at the entrance with a book, someone in front of me on line said “Shalom” to him; the young guy nodded and continued humming the Tom Jones tune “It’s Not Unusual.”

Jared, our tour guide, used a plastic model to show us how the Second Temple was built up by King Herod, a Jew who also had to make nice with the Romans.  Herod strikes me as kind of a Steve Jobs of his time — fanatically attending to every detail of design.  Jared pointed out how Herod even had the side of the mountain onto which his workers were building carefully sculpted so that it seemed like an extension of the Temple walls.

A bit earlier, as we’d gathered near the Dung Gate — whose name wins points on directness — Jared had asked us to try to engage in a brief act of memory: to try to recall our very first memory of being ourselves.  Sue, a member of our group, said, “It’s hard to know what’s a memory and what’s a dream.”  And I could feel the realization ripple around our little circle that what she had just said was very appropriate on many levels.

As we made our way through the tunnels Jared told us about how a special group of Jews, the Levites, were once responsible for all the logistics of Temple rituals.  This instantly made sense to me, as my friend Myra Levy is very good at logistics.

We learned many things on this walk: that the Russian Orthodox Church owns much of the actual land in Israel; that the Old City is one of the most densely populated places on earth (it felt like it); that Herod was crazy for fake marble.  We saw women praying fervently in a part of the tunnels that is said to be closest to “the Holy of Holies”; I wondered whether they were praying here, rather than on the outside part of the Wall, at least in part because they felt less judgment and segregation.  My wife placed a piece of paper with the names of our loved ones in a crack in the Wall; I prayed for their happiness and good health.

We emerged into the daylight of the Via Dolorosa, which — if I have this right — at least begins in the Muslim Quarter, even though it is supposed to trace Jesus’ path toward crucifixion and resurrection.  Suddenly many of the tourists were speaking Spanish and Italian.  I went to an Episcopalian choir school for many years, and my father’s best friend was a Presbyterian minister, and I had the sense — looking at the portraits depicting a suffering Jesus — of being back home, in a way.

We reached an archeological site.  As Jared spoke, at great length, we felt our will to live being sapped by the blazing sun — until Rabbi Creditor gently interjected, “Shade is also holy.”

A short time later we stood in an at least slightly shaded area in front of yet another archeological dig.  As Jared was talking, people literally began streaming up out of the ground behind him.  Looking on in amazement, Menachem explained to us that among them was the woman who leads the  opposition in Israel — it was literally like watching the political underground emerge into the light of day.

As we left the Old City, a seemingly endless line of young — and I mean young — Israeli soldiers, carrying scary-looking weapons that seemed so incongruous given their unlined features, flowed in through the Dung Gate.  Jared explained that there was to be a protest against the Israeli government, scheduled to coincide with the the Muslim Sabbath.  (A draconian-sounding law, forbidding boycotts, had recently been passed by the Israeli Knesset.)  I thought, “So many different faiths in such a tight space, and in such heat!”  But I must say — and this is something that others in my group have talked about as well — overall my experience in the Old City was of fantastically diverse people interacting with courtesy, curiosity, and grace, of faiths and cultures being blessed by their proximity to others, of porous borders, of children who were children — not types, not Others, just children of God.

*     *     *

On Friday night our group gathered by another section of the Wall — one that had been reserved by a Masorti congregation (known as “Conservative” in the States).  Rabbi Creditor had announced in Facebook that we would be there, and a bunch of other folks — including a rabbi who’d been his classmate at seminary — showed up.  At this part of the Wall there was no one to tell us that men had to be separate from women.  There were huge stones piled at the foot of the Wall — it was kind of like a set from Star Trek (though, as Menachem pointed out when I mentioned this, the ones in Star Trek would probably have been much lighter).  With prayers and songs, we greeted the Jewish Sabbath.  As I leaned against one of the big stones, I wondered whether I was being sacrilegious in doing so — but then I saw another guy leaning against a stone, and he seemed like he knew what he was doing, so I assumed it was okay.  (Later, Menachem suggested that possibly someone had looked at me and reassured themselves in this same way.)  I vacillated between trying to feel the sacredness and actually feeling it, I apologized silently both to these lovely people and to my secular parents for my partial apostasy in each direction, and I was, for a few moments, utterly at peace.

Quixotic in Israel

There is a windmill near our hotel here in Jerusalem.  Sometime in the last 4,000 years — probably in the last century (I am making no claims of accuracy in this reportage; please offer corrections in “Comments”) — a rich Jewish guy paid for a bunch of idealistic but relatively helpless urban Jews (like me, only from Europe, I think) to start an outpost here.  They had a very hard time, fighting disease, dirt, heat, and hunger.  So at some point the rich guy decided to build a windmill nearby, I guess to provide wind power and maybe hope as well.  The windmill still stands, overlooking the city, but doesn’t work very well, and never has — adding mechanical dysfunctionality to an already dysfunctional community.

This quixotic project seems to capture a lot of what I’m feeling in my few few days here — the desperate, intense desire for a crazy human endeavor to work somehow, while feeling, at nearly all times, that it’s not happening the way it’s supposed to.  The winds blow, but not enough — and yet, instead of giving up, which would be the reasonable response, you find yourself hoping with even greater intensity.

My wife and son and I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv on Thursday at about 5:30 p.m., having departed from Berkeley on Wednesday morning.  Dazed, we drifted through the Ben Gurion Airport, expecting at some point to be interrogated by intense, swarthy Israeli security personnel.  Thinking of Israel, we had always imagined something of a police state, especially at the international airport.  And yet we just had to wait in a short line to show our American passports to a woman in a booth, and then wait a little bit more at baggage claim.  And then we just … left the airport and took a cab to the Jerusalem hotel where our Berkeley-based group was staying.

Already, reality was messing with my preconceptions of Israel: I was encountering an unexpected normality — but a compressed normality, if that makes sense: normality contained within a highly pressurized space.

There are 19 of us in our group (I think), led by Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Berkeley’s Congregation Netivot Shalom, who has, in the two years or so I’ve known him, become a dear friend.  I had approached Menachem with the idea that he train me for a bar mitzvah (which I’ve never had), and he had responded by expanding the idea into a series of public classes (held over the last several months in Berkeley) and this group tour of Israel.  At the first dinner, on Thursday night, we med Jared, our tour leader here (along with Menachem).  An American who found religion at 21 and has lived in Israel for a long time now, Jared is perhaps the most energetic person I have ever met; the cords in his neck stand out as he speaks, which he does a lot, and with a great and nuanced knowledge of seemingly everything regarding Israel.

My family and I, on the other hand, were operating on considerably less energy, as we had barely slept in the last two days.  So it was in something of a daze that my wife and I piled into the air conditioned bus for a short ride to the “Peace Forest,” which overlooks the city.  It was dark out, and beautiful.  Nearby on our ridge was a group of religious Jews, most of them severely disabled and in wheelchairs; below us a young girl rolled on the spotlit grass with her even younger sister; also hanging out were a group of teenagers playing bongos, who might just have beamed themselves here from the Cal-Berkeley campus.  In the distance, at first disquietingly for us, fireworks kept going off over the city; Jared explained that this was a traditional part of Arab wedding celebrations.  Strangely, a fire had started not far away, and smoke quickly enveloped us and fire-engine sirens wailed.  My wife and I looked at each other; our exhausted son was back at the hotel, sleeping, and we were in this strange land.  Vulnerable — that’s how we felt.

And then Menachem spoke, beautifully, about us beginning our experience here together, and he offered prayers, and — though perhaps the majority of us are what you would call secular — we felt (or, speaking for myself, I felt) joined to all my fellow travelers, and to all these strangers living in this city, in a sense of heightened possibility.

On the bus back to the hotel, Jared explained to us that we would be spending the next day in the “Old City” — the most ancient, and religiously fraught, part of Jerusalem — and so we should make sure to wear clothing that covered our shoulders, elbows, and cleavage.  I wondered allowed how residents of the Old City would then be able to appreciate my hairy chest and impressive collection of gold chains, but Jared seemed unmoved.

Later that night, Menachem took a small group of us on kind of a preview walk to the Old City.  The weather was cool.  I was running on fumes, but I really wanted to experience everything I could.  After making our way through narrow, twisting streets of winding cobblestones, we went through a security checkpoint and I thought I heard Menachem say that we were about to see our hotel and that he wouldn’t try to prepare us for the experience.  I wondered vaguely why viewing our hotel from another angle was going to be such a big deal — but then I saw this huge wall, spotlit, and I thought, “Well, it does look cool.”  It was only after a while of staring that I realized: this was not our hotel, it was the Kotel — the Western Wall.  And this was a big deal.  We stood in an enormous, mostly empty square, divided by a fence from the people who were praying at the wall.  Though I’d heard that men and women had to pray at different parts of the Wall, I still felt a jolt to see it: a much larger section for the davening men, fenced off from a relatively cramped space for the equally pious women.  And I felt that I did not want to go right up to the Wall, because then I would have to be with only the men.  But I must note that a woman in our group, who initially felt the same way, ended up going into the women’s section of the Wall and had a powerful, affirming experience there.

Here we come to the crux of the tensions I’ve felt here in Jerusalem: between those who wish to live as though they were in another time — say, a Polish village in the 1900s — and those of us who have embraced modernity.  People in the garb of the Ultra-Orthodox (and maybe also the Orthodox — in my relative ignorance, I’m not sure I can always make the distinction) moved among us in the Old City, never seeming to meet my eyes.  And maybe I was projecting, but I felt disapproved of, as if this was their world and I was an impurity.  But also in the square were other tourists, many of them not trying very hard, if at all, to cover their shoulders, elbows, and cleavages, posing for photos in form-fitting Western clothing with the Wall as a backdrop.  And I felt as though two incompatible universes were somehow overlapping, and this unsteady truce could not hold forever, or even for very long.

That was our first night — I haven’t even gotten to our very full and exhausting day yesterday!  I am writing to you on Saturday, the Sabbath, which is probably violating several Jewish laws, and I really need to spend some time preparing for my bar mitzvah, which will be on Monday.  I have to keep trying to memorize my parsha, which I’m finding quite difficult, and must also write out my personal response to the Torah portion I’ve been assigned.  This is all making me very nervous.

But before I sign off for now, let me just add this: On Thursday, after we stepped off the plane in Tel Aviv, my wife and son and I were making our way through the airport.  And I saw people walking here and there — you know, doing airport things.  And I saw the huge sign, in sans-serif type, saying that this was David Ben Gurion Airport.  And this is what I found myself saying, quietly: “Fuck you, Hitler!”

We are still here.