Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Chanukah That Wasn’t

I admit that I was the Chanukah “one-present-every-night-and-a-really-big-one-on-the-last-night kinda mom when my kids were growing up. That was the family tradition in which I was raised, along with numerous tinselly type window decorations and a huge “Happy Hanukkah” banner across the front door. It made me proud to be so visibly Jewish at the most otherwise-invisible time of year. I felt “one of the crowd” with my peers and friends, even the Jewish ones. It was joyous, festive, and somewhat Christmasy, to be honest. My mom tried really hard to compete with the secular culture around us, and most years she won. I have very fond memories of those years, and Chanukah with my own kids was always something of a treat even if we didn’t go “all the way.” And while I am generally a Christmas Scrooge (I go grocery shopping with headphones on, listening to Israeli music so I don’t get jingle-belled into oblivion) I never really minded if the “holiday spirit” started creeping into Chanukah.

So imagine my surprise when Chanukah came and went in Jerusalem without any hoopla at all. It was so understated that one could practically have missed it. “That was Chanukah??” my kids asked at the end of the eighth day. I mean, Yom Kippur was so quiet you could hear a pin drop even in the secular neighborhoods; Sukkot was a major deal with kiosks full of decorations, instant pop-up Sukkah marts on every corner, and public Sukkot at every restaurant. Even Rosh Chodesh gets its own “Have a good month” banners in restaurants and special services in shul. I did notice the electric menorahs on every lamppost on King David Street, the buses which flashed “Chanukah Sameach” on their front panels, and the glass-covered Chanukiot outside people’s homes. (First prize goes to the house that made its outdoor Chanukiah out of 8 recycled beer bottles and a Scotch bottle shamash hanging on a tree.) We went to lots of latke dinners. We heard Handel’s Judas Maccabeus in the Jerusalem Theatre. (That same concert also featured Handel’s Messiah. Go figure.) But there were very few Chanukiot in store windows—except those for sale— very little Chanukah music on the Israeli radio, and nobody buys anybody presents except for really little tzatchkes for really little kids. When I went to a local store and ordered something for my 20 year old son, she asked me when I needed to pick it up. I said “In time for Chanukah of course” and she looked at me as if she didn’t get it at all and I was nuts. It was, to be honest, weird to have Chanukah be “just” Chanukah, exactly the way we Rabbis talk about it every year in the Chanukah-isn’t-Christmas fight. In Jerusalem its really “just” Chanukah like we keep insisting it should be. Liberating, but a little lame. I have to confess: I missed the hoopla.

Does it have to be all or nothing? It’s like Israel has gone the other way: since we don’t have Christmas (except in the Old City) let’s not have Chanukah either? Because “they” (the Anglo North Americans, the Russians, the foreign Thai workers) have a Christmas-Chanukah confusion, and they still celebrate their “New Year's Eves” which we know aren’t the real thing, (and which are shunned by the kosher hotels for fear of losing their kashrut licenses) let's not confuse them by making Chanukah a big deal? Even Tu B’shvat gets more press here. So the kids get their “winter break” at Chanukah and everyone goes to Eilat where you can light the Chanukiah in the hotel lobby. Maybe what we needed was some snow to get in the mood.

I don’t know, but now that the darkness of December has passed, I’m waiting for Tu B’shvat for some fun.

But there were lots of sufganiot in all the bakery windows for a full month before Chanukah!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Free Jerusalem

I was leading a group of 15 women from around the world on a Women’s Spirituality mission when the news broke: an Israeli woman had been arrested at the Kotel for wearing a tallit. The group was astonished, having just spent a lovely afternoon a few days before touring the Old City and putting their personal notes into the Wall’s crevices. Like most of my tours, this was a sophisticated group; they weren’t “just tourists” who think the haredim are exotic, interesting “specimens” of Jews. They got the politics. They got the tension. They got the history. They understood why I don’t take my groups walking through Meah Shearim, under the watchful eyes of the huge sign demanding exacting standards of modest dress from all women who enter, past virulently anti-Zionist signs (like “All Jews hate Zionists”), through narrow alleyways reminiscent of 18th century Poland where we “seculars” can take pictures of “quaint” religious children. They got that “Jews ‘R Us” as much as “Jews ‘R Them.” I hope that after an intense week in Israel, they got that they are responsible for the Jewish future as much as the haredim are.

We debated: after all, the Kotel has been designated as an Orthodox synagogue rather than as a historical site (this after a 20 year battle from Women of the Wall to be able to read from a Torah on the women’s side) and those who enter an Orthodox site should abide by the rules of that community. On the other hand, since when is the Kotel a synagogue? It was disingenious from the start to designate it as such only after the Women of the Wall lodged their case, and to then give it to an Orthodox monopoly which now includes a men-only walking area in the formerly mixed back plaza. On the third hand, why should the women who want to pray together quietly as a group be forced to move to a non-public space? On the fourth hand why should a small group of women be allowed to disturb the status quo and the peace of the Kotel every month? On the fifth hand why is a woman wearing a tallit so disturbing, considering she is not obligated to wear one but neither is there a halachic commandment AGAINST her wearing one. On the sixth hand we are supposed to love all Jews and to remember the Second Temple was destroyed by the hate of one Jew to another. On the seventh hand how do we disagree with those (on either “side”) we think are so utterly wrong that it may one day destroy the Judaism we believe in...on the eighth hand, we simply need to be octopi to have enough hands for this discussion.

The woman arrested on November 18th was Nofrat Frenkel, a 28 year-old Israeli medical student and committed Conservative Jew. Born into an Orthodox Zionist family, she identifies herself as “religious.” She is one of the most spiritual, faithful Jews you will ever meet. The press treated the arrest as little more than a “human interest” story but in Jerusalem it represented the straw that broke the camel’s back after months of violent haredi demonstrations against both the downtown public parking lot and the Intel factory being open on Shabbat. Those demonstrations included stone-throwing, rioting, fires being set, reporters being attacked, dirty diapers being dumped on police, and vandalism. In shuls and stores, on buses and in bars people were talking about religious coercion and the right of each person to their own Jewish expression. Law-abiding citizens began asking why those who break the law are not punished. Religious and secular Jews both started asking why they were being silent in the face of Frenkel’s arrest and the growing fanaticism that is taking hold of formerly tolerant and pluralistic neighborhoods. People started talking about “Kiryat Yovel” as a symbol of religious coercion. Kiryat Yovel is a university neighborhood, open and pluralistic, with lots of modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, completely secular, Arabs, searching college kids. A few months ago a group of 300 haredi families sought to buy and/or build apartment buildings open only to members of their community and to turn the field which was slated to be for an arts centre into a haredi kindergarten. Frenkel’s arrest and the growing tension in Kiryat Yovel made people feel that it was time to “do something.”

So my family and I took part in a quickly-organized protest rally convened by a consortium of groups under the banner “Free Jerusalem” on the last Saturday night of November in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem press reported that a few hundred “secular Jerusalemites” marched. In truth it was close to 2500 people of all ages, with many, many kipot and tzitzit, skirts and hair-covering scarves. The Conservative and Reform movements were there in full form. Secular? If by that you mean those who do not wear or live in black-and-white. The speeches emphasized the willingness of the protesters to dialogue with the haredim, and their desire for a peaceful and united city, but their unwillingness to let Jerusalem devolve into a fundamentalist city with its own brand of morality police, run by those who do not recognize the rights of all citizens of that city. Speakers from the Knesset held kowtowing politicians responsible for placating and turning a blind eye to violent, disruptive, and even illegal haredi acts and the growing haredi coercion in all levels of local and national politics. Frenkel spoke eloquently of her simple desire to “serve The Creator in joy” as a woman. We sang “Jerusalem of Gold” and then, most powerfully, we were asked to sing Hatikva— ‘lihiyot am chofshi- to be a free people in our own land, in Eretz Yisrael and in Jerusalem’— to reaffirm that our protest was a Zionist act of love for the Jewish State of Israel. People openly wept, and I felt within the crowd a fierce dedication to both Israel and to its heart, Jerusalem. The Israeli who had marched next to me saying “I’ve had it, I’m moving to Tel Aviv” turned to me at the end and said, “Now I know I can’t leave but have to become active in the movement for a free Jerusalem. I want my Jerusalem back.”

After the peaceful protest ended, 2500 people went up the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street, looking for felafel and making their way home. We were met by three dancing Hasidic men with huge yellow flags that said “Mashiach” on them; they had been trying valiantly to drown out the protest by singing to a recording of “Mashiach, Mashiach” as loud as possible into hand-held microphones. We tried to talk with them; they sang louder. We formed a circle and started dancing to the music; they turned off the music and moved away. I kept thinking of all the Jews who have pretty much abandoned Judaism while sending money to haredim so “they will be Jewish for us.” I kept thinking of the approaching festival of Hanukkah and its insistence on “dispelling the darkness.” In Jerusalem, a thriving new generation is trying to rekindle the light, by redefining who the they will be in the years ahead. I wish them success— for Jerusalem’s sake.

The sign says, “We are liberating the Western Wall a second time.” (The first time was, of course, after the 1967 war when the city was united and the Wall was “liberated” from Jordanian control.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cityscape and Moonscape

This month let me paint you an impressionist picture of the little things that make up life in Jerusalem.

I’m sitting in a cafe Friday afternoon drinking my latte and the person at the table next to me, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, motions to my watch and says “excuse me, what time…” I assume they want to know what time it is now. But: they finish the sentence, “what time... does Shabbat start tonight?”

Every Friday, there is a comedy troupe that performs from 11-1. They do a mixture of skits, music, and an interview with some well known Israeli. They are kind of a Hebrew version of the Jon Stewart Show and they are hysterically funny. But: the performance is all about the parsha of the week. And the audience is mixed religious-secular. And the name of the weekly show is “Kalabbat Shabbat”, a mixed up Kabbalat Shabbat.

3,000 people join us on Shlomo Carlebach’s 15th yartzeit for a concert in his memory. It’s a frum rock happening. The guys hawking T-shirts outside have made a shirt with the same font from Carlsberg Beer which reads: Carlebach: Possibly the Best Rebbe in the World.

The red and green traffic lights on Derech Hevron, a major street (think Bathurst Street), are timed so that when you have to cross three stantions, only one at a time turns green, thus making you wait three times to get across one busy street. Nu, you think pedestrians are as important as drivers?

We go to Ulpan every Tuesday night, the quintessential Israeli experience. Our class is one Russian nun in a habit, one Syrian priest in full black regalia with a black hood (his native tongue is Aramaic), one haredi woman (whose native tongue is Yiddish), a sprinkling of Americans, French, and Spaniards, 2 Israeli Arabs. We are in the highest level, so we do lots of complicated Hebrew grammar, and get this: one student is a professor from Harvard who taught himself fluent Hebrew in 3 months.

We meet someone new and they immediately invite us for Shabbat. ‘Nuff said.

I’ve decided the Israeli national sport is car-honking. Long and loud. Silver goes to the person who can lean on their horn the longest. Gold goes to the guy who passes on the right, makes a left in front of a moving bus, and never lets up on his horn. Next up: mezuzah-kissing.

I’m watching older folks on the bus and I suddenly realize: a whole generation of the first pioneers will soon be gone. And with them, go the stories that I was raised on of draining the swamps. And with them goes the poetry and the music and the Israeli dances and the camp-fire sing-alongs and the kibbutzim (all of which are now privatized) and maybe even the tiny-cut tomato and cucumber salad for breakfast that marked the Israel of my childhood and teens. I feel a sudden deep sadness and wonder who, and what, will replace the chalutzim who built a country because they had an answer to the question why? Go watch the incredibly moving film Galilee Eskimos-- if you can find it.

Israelis use so much English in their Hebrew that you can just about make up any word you want from English to Hebrew just by adding an “ah” at the end or “oot”. Here are some of the new Hebrew words (that have perfectly adequate Hebrew equivalents)I heard just in the last week:

l’sa-mes (to text using SMS)

l’gagal (to google)

l’fass-beck (to “facebook”)

celeb (celebrity) and its cousin: celebriti-oot (celebrity-ness)

alternativ-ii (alternative)

ha-elitah (the elite)

sitzu-atzia (situation)

moti-vatzia (motivation)

optimiut (optimism)

emotziot (emotions)

And sometimes Israelis just throw in English words (when talking to other Israelis!) for no apparent reason except to demonstrate their English competency: like: “anyways,” “let’s go,” and “no problem”.

Last week we went on an all-night desert hike in the hills of S’dom. We arrived down south at 11 p.m. and hiked till 5 a.m., seeing the sunrise at the end. We meditated on the strange moonscape of white chalk mountains which tower above you and yet crumble in your hand. The full moon was so bright it cast shadows as we walked silently in the valley, flanked by winding white walls and cliffs. The silence was so powerful it practically echoed and played tricks on me; one minute I thought I heard a bird, the next minute the wind whistled and it sounded like a car. Even though it had rained in Jerusalem the day before the desert just 2 hours south was totally dry; the brush crackled underneath our feet. Ha-midbar (the desert) mid-aber (speaks.) The desert that speaks.

I realized there are 2 Walls in Jerusalem. A wall that separates- the security fence. And a wall that brings together- the Western Wall. And they both sometimes do just the opposite as well: the security wall brings together, while the Western Wall separates. Odd. And very Jerusalem.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore….

I returned to Toronto to lead services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and I think I didn’t realize how profound the culture shock would be after only 6 weeks away. Leaving aside the fact that my husband and sons were still in Jerusalem, the whole experience had a surreal effect. I was “home” but where is home now? On the flight back to Jerusalem, speaking Hebrew to the El Al attendants, they asked if I was returning “home” to Israel. Home is where the heart is? What happens when your heart is in two places? And what if sometimes your heart isn’t really “at home” in either?

This became clear on Yom Kippur.

I missed the religiosity of Jerusalem, even if sometimes I can’t stand it. Walking to shul on Yom Kippur from my hotel was an exercise in strangeness. (And of course, staying in a hotel on yontiff was strange enough as it is.) I passed a schoolbus full of kids (it is, after all, Monday), a house being renovated, a gym full of sweating people on treadmills, ladies getting their nails done, a truck unloading. Business as usual, and not just a few Jews among them, I’m sure. Not that I care, but I pause to wonder if stuff being closed, the streets being empty, and people being with their families isn’t a better way to spend just one holy day in the year for Jews—even if they are being “forced” into it by circumstance. I wonder if we would ever pause to disconnect, to think in quietude, to reflect, to stop running, to stop working, to stop producing, if we weren’t somehow “forced” into it by our religion. Forget Shabbos, I’m just talking about one day a year here that Toronto went on being Toronto without the slightest hint of awareness that it was the holiest day of the Jewish year.

I felt really thankful for the small community I have built. I walked into the JCC and it finally felt like a holy day. But on the street...forget it.

Of course it would have been different if I had been walking down Bathurst, the “Jewish strip”. That would have been closed up, quiet, and felt like it was yontiff. But in a way it was good that I walked down Yonge, main artery, to really feel what it is like to live in the Diaspora. I kept wondering why anyone who is truly religiously observant would choose to live in Toronto rather than Jerusalem? To be different all the time, to always go against the grain, to have to search for kosher food, to have to dodge the traffic on Shabbat, to live on a different calendar, to spend your days in a different rhythm and cadence than your neighbors all the time? To live in a Jewish “ghetto” so you can walk to shul and send your kids to school with other religious kids? To pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on day school—and thats per child—so they can get a Jewish education. I understand if you are a religious leader: your job is to inspire others to lead a more Jewish life, and so you serve an important purpose in staying. You are insuring a vibrant Jewish life for those who remain in the Diaspora. If you are in “outreach” your work in the Diaspora is clear- there is so much “bringing closer to Judaism” one can do in North America, its overwhelming. And if you are a liberal Jew, living in the Diaspora is not a contradiction. You can drive to shul in a different neighborhood from where you live. Your kids go to public school. You don’t live always and only in a Jewish world or on a Jewish calendar. You can eat anywhere. But if you are an Orthodox Jew, or halachically observant, I’m sorry, but aside from not wanting to leave the comforts of home... I just don’t get it.

I got back to Jerusalem just in time for Sukkot. What a difference! Sukkahs everywhere, festivals everywhere, a massive "priestly blessing" (Birkat Cohanim) at the Western Wall, a 70,000 person parade of Christian supporters of Israel through downtown Jerusalem; warm enough to sleep outside in the Sukkah every night. Pomegranates still piled high in the market and honey cake being sold on tables all along the streets. We went to the market (Machane Yehuda) on Erev Sukkot at 1 p.m., just in time to snag a gorgeous lulav and etrog for 25 shekels (about $8 US) from the guys trying to make their last sales before chag. The guy we bought it from was standing on top of the table shouting "I'm going home! Liquidation sale! Please, please, please buy an etrog before the holiday!"

Simchat Torah means people have to stop saying acharei hachagim, "I'll get to it after the holidays." There's a second set of hakafot (7 rounds of dancing with the Torah) tonight in Liberty Bell Park for those who didn't get enough last night and this morning. As for me, I feel like The Berenstein Bears And Too Much Yontiff. For the next little while, I'll just keep trying to make two homes in one heart.

Do you like your etrog green, yellow, or two toned?

The guy standing next to us checking his lulav with a magnifying glass.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Jerusalem In Search of Itself

To those who have commented on the blogs so far: thanks so much for taking the time. If I don't respond personally please forgive me, I'm reading your comments and enjoying them, even the critical ones. On that note, however, it seems that whenever I criticize the Orthodox community, or the Orthodox way of seeing things, I'm "Orthodox-bashing" or not being respectful. Not true. You'll soon find out I'm an equal-opportunity critic. I call sexism, homophobia, injustice, hypocrisy, silliness, extremism, and bad manners when I see them. Through my own lenses, I admit. I'm never respectful of those, no matter from whom they come. And will continue to do so, along with sharing the natural ambivalences which come from being an outsider observing from the inside. The good news is, I'm also an equal opportunity praiser and admirer.
Happy reading! And a happy, healthy, peaceful and clear New Year to all of you.

Jerusalem In Search of Itself
Elie Weisel was once asked, “What city in the world do you love the most?” He answered, “Jerusalem— when I’m not there.”

We were having dinner the other night with some new immigrants, when I asked one of them why she had made aliyah from a very comfortable life in the States. She answered, “Because I hate Jerusalem, but I wanted to hate it from here.” I keep thinking: every day is Purim in Jerusalem. Really. There are just more interesting and sometimes crazy scenes here than anywhere else: it's a feast for the senses. People who think they are the Messiah. People
who think you are the Messiah. People who think a recently dead Rebbe, or a Rebbe who left a mysterious note saying nah nah is the Messiah, and who simply have to convince you that they are right via some very lively songs and dances. (Hmm, sounds a lot like another religion I know.) Women who wear more layers than is humanely possible (and I’m not talking about the Greek Orthodox nuns in floor-length black dresses, waist-length black headscarves and pointed black hats; I’m talking about Jewish women whose fashion is a T-shirt which is covered by anoter longer T-shirt which is covering an Indian dress, which is covering a calf-length skirt, which is covering Indian harem pants, plus a huge turban-like scarf wrapped at least five times around their head. I think Jerusalem should give out a prize for "most layers worn in hottest weather.") The lone guy singing really bad off-key Yiddish songs at the top of Ben Yehuda Street every Saturday night with a little karoke machine. The woman who insists that G-d sent me to her to help her open yet another “holistic, spiritual, natural, Shlomo-singing, vegetarian, Jewish community...” The haredim who act like hooligans, throwing diapers at policemen trying to keep order on the holy Shabbos the protesters don’t hesitate to desecrate spiritually (though not halachically, apparently) with a demonstration. The guys who think its ok to be sexually suggestive to women all the time, I mean all the time- at the bank, at Israeli dancing, on the bus, you name it. The wide-eyed bushy-tailed missionaries from Korea here for a year who aren't allowed by law to missionize but who sing in a choir on the pedestrian mall in Korean while no one understands what they are saying. The tourists trying hard to pretend they live here, with haltingly bad Hebrew and baseball caps that say NYPD. (We found out that most Israelis just don’t wear baseball caps. It marks you.) The folks who wear tzitzit with no kipa. The kids with the teeniest tiniest little kipot I have ever seen, right in the middle of the top of their heads. (I'm thinking of calling those "kipakinis.") The Israeli version of the TV show "Survivor" which had a religious guy who had to eat a worm (not kosher) or his team would lose...

I feel like Jerusalem is still trying to figure itself out. There’s an initiative to erase all English and Arabic from street signs, and just use transliteration. Oh that’ll be great for tourists: can you help me find Rechov Kovshei Katamon and the Natbag (airport- Namal Teufah Ben Gurion) please? A recent cell phone company ad shows Israeli soldiers kicking a soccer ball over the “security fence” and it gets kicked back (by the not-seen little Arab kids on the other side?) so a nice little game of soccer over the wall happens, like that is what its all about and that might ever happen.

My Israeli die-hard-Zionist friend said the other day, “If there was another Jewish state somewhere, I think I’d try living there.” Yossi Sarid wrote a very tough piece in Haaretz last week. “There is no conflict in Israel that does not have its root in this city: Jews against Arabs, Arabs against Jews; the religious—particularly the ultra-Orthodox—against the secular and vice-versa; and liberals (there are still a handful left) against the nationalistic zealots.”
Is this what I came for? Yikes.

I came to find out if there is a way to love a city that its so easy also to hate. I came to find out what draws so many people here. I came to breathe in the complicated air. I came to go to a once-yearly 3 a.m. Old City Greek Orthodox (Christian orthodox, that is) processional returning the icon of Mary to its hallowed place in the Valley of Kidron. I came to work against the sexism that is so natural here. I came to help in the battle for religious rights. I came to mentor Rabbinical students so they could carry the torch after me. I came to volunteer at a soup kitchen so I could give a poor family something to eat for Shabbat. I came to wake up to church bells from the convent next door; to pick from the fruit trees that grow freely in public parks; to pass olive, fig, and pomegranate trees on my way to shul the week we read about the seven species. To prove that my Hebrew is good enough to be as rude to some Israeli taxidriver as they are being to me— and then not wanting to be or actually being. (Yes, I’m still a Canadian...) To revel in everyone’s accent in Hebrew: French, Ethiopian, Spanish, Russian, Yemenite. (For Hebrew speakers: nothing is sweeter than an Argentinian saying “ahni midaber ibrit” with a Spanish intonation and rolling R.) I came to see a gorgeous Israeli soldier on the bus who is Thai. I came to do Selichot with Adin Steinsaltz whose translation of the Talmud I use all the time. I came for the food (seriously, like having halvah on toast for breakfast.) I came to hang my laundry out to dry in the sun. I came to walk everywhere, and I came to go on those long, long double buses which go around a corner at alarming speeds. I came to see the first clouds which appear in the summer sky just after Rosh Chodesh Elul, heralding the coming of the rainy season which begins after Sukkot. (And I came because it will NOT rain until then.) I came to see a performance of Ethiopian Jewish piyutim (traditional poems written for a holiday) by kesim (Ethiopian Rabbis) together with one of Israel's top jazz saxophonists, also an Ethiopian Jew. I came to plant a pomegranate tree in my small yard.
I came to figure out Jerusalem, and myself too, in the process.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

It's Complicated

How is it possible that it is so easy to be Jewish here, and so complicated too?

Easy, and beautiful, and fun. Even the “secular” folks say “Shabbat Shalom” to you as you walk to shul on Friday night. There’s a shul on every corner, one for every “flavour” of Jew, not-yet-Jew, tourist, citizen; one for every kind of davenning you want: Reform neo-Chasidic, Reform classic, Reform-American, Reform-Carlebach yababababidibim; Conservadox, Conservative-American style, Conservative-European; Orthodox-lite, Orthodox-egalitarian, Orthodox-Brooklyn, modern and not-so-modern Orthodox, Orthodox-Carlebach yababababidibim, frum Orthodox, really frum Orthodox and even frummer Orthodox; over-the-top frum and out-of-this-world frum. Blessings come spontaneously: when we finish buying new dishes in the Machane Yehuda market we get an outpouring and heartfelt blessing not over the dishes, but over our being here. The cook at the soup kitchen where we volunteer doesn’t bother learning our names, he just calls each one “my righteous one.” Young people daven their morning prayers freely, without embarrassment, on the public bus going downtown. Friday night is quiet, and everyone finds a family to be with. Saturday night is one big boisterous party, and Israelis stay up really late. “I won’t be able to do this till much later” is translated into Hebrew as “after the holidays” (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, that is.) The newscaster uses the expression “a word to the wise is sufficient” straight from its Talmudic source—in Aramaic.

Difficult, and sometimes ugly, and exhausting. Two gay teenagers are murdered in a “safe haven” community centre in Tel Aviv and while the “hip” shul I go to on Friday night makes a whole big deal out of it with readings and prayers and outreach to the LGBT community in Jerusalem, the “hip” synagogue I go to on Saturday morning doesn’t say a word. A story on the news reports that not only do we now have gender segregated buses in the religious community, (women in the back—just like in the good old days in Selma, Alabama where blacks had to sit in the back and that was actually legal) but there is now one neighborhood with gender separated sidewalks. Yes, you read that right—gender separated sidewalks. (I wish tourists would stop going to the “quaint” religious neighborhoods where such practices will soon become common.)

Even though there is a shul on every corner, I quickly discover that they all have politics just like back home—it was easier to be an unknowing tourist here, for sure. I find myself growing tired of the constant “G-d sent you to me” or “G-d sent me this idea” or “G-d made sure I did this” from the wide-eyed and bushy-tailed newly religious (baaley teshuva) keeners, and I find myself angry at the growing number of times I’ve been missionized by Jews for Jesus who find fertile ground in this spiritually complex place. And yes, this is the country where 50 Rabbis and Kabbalists circled over Israel in a chartered airplane blowing shofarot and praying against swine flu. "The aim of the flight was to stop the pandemic so people will stop dying from it," Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri was quoted as saying. And just this week posters went up around the Central Bus Station letting us know that the internet equals cancer in gematria (Jewish numerology.) Gotta love it.

And yet, and yet, and yet...the weather! (Sunny with a chance of more sunny.) The beauty of the land- green sprouting out of desert, the lush flowers, walking past olive trees, pomegranate trees and lemon trees in the middle of the city. The sense of spontaneity of Israelis (no one plans far in advance, and people just “pop” over for a visit. And you can usually get tickets to a concert the night of.) The encounters with people from every corner of the globe. (Its a really different Jerusalem from 20 years ago when there wasn’t a black, Thai, or Chinese face. Now you can get injera, the Ethiopian bread, in the market, and see Thai kids in army uniforms and kipot.) The easy relationships with our Arab neighbors (we live near Abu Tor, a mixed neighborhood) even through all the politics. The immense number of groups working for peace, for interfaith understanding, for Arab-Jewish reconciliation, for the environment, for social justice, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, “rescuing” food. The fact that just about every Israeli volunteers for something and the society is still more “we” than “me.” That people talk about their society, question it, examine it, reflect a lot on how to make it better; that everyone cares enough to have an opinion— even I you don’t agree with it. (When the news comes on, the bus drivers turn up the volume and everyone quiets down to listen.) That the first few seats on the bus don’t just say “Leave these seats for those who need” but have a verse from the Torah that commands you to give up your seat. (“Thou shalt rise before the grey-haired person.”) That there are now lots of joint religious-secular clubs and even one school. That there is more than one Arab-Jewish neighborhood and school. And, personally, the liberation from having to explain/label myself all the time (“I’m a trans-denominational observant liberal religiously right-wing politically left-wing Jewish feminist vegetarian”—yeah, yeah, those are a dime a dozen here. We get it.) And the intensity of life here—but, we also don't like that one. It's complicated. That's a favourite word of Israelis, we're learning. Zeh Mi-su-bach.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Destruction and Restoration

Arriving in Israel just the day before Tisha B'av, the somber fast day commemorating the destruction of the two Temples, I was struck with the fact that everyone noticed, and everyone commented, on our timing. "Just in time for Tisha B'av" the cashier at the organics store said. "Wow-just before Tisha B'av" our new neighbor mentioned. Even the most secular Israeli knows the Jewish calender—but more than that—relates to it as a marker of time in their daily life. Yes indeed, we arrived just the day before Tisha B’av, which meant that not only did we get the chance to observe it in the very city where it happened, but also got to experience the mad rush for groceries in the supermarket occasioned by the upcoming fast.

How to deal with Tisha B’av? To fast and cry about our victimhood and remember “they tried to kill us” while we are living in perhaps the most miraculous time in Jewish history ever, when there is a sovereign Jewish state? To mourn the loss of a Temple, priesthood, and cult of animal sacrifices, and pray for the day when they will be restored (and don’t even go there as a woman and vegetarian…)? Had the Temple not been destroyed, there might be no Rabbinic Judaism, no Talmud, no yeshivas, no Kabbalah, no Chasidim, no modern Judaism at all, and we would likely have gone the way of other ancient religions that did not adapt to new realities, a blip of history’s memory, a civilization lost. The diaspora created the Jewish people, and thus exile and return are both part and parcel of Jewish identity. To pray for the Messianic time when the Dome of the Rock will be replaced by the Third Temple? Maybe, as Arthur Waskow suggests, the Third Temple IS the Dome of the Rock- meaning that the Messiah will come when there is true interreligious cooperation and understanding. Or maybe the Third Temple is our longing for it. Or the Third Temple will be a virtual Temple, one built brick by brick every time a Jew joins the community in some way. Oh, and one more thing about Tishe B’av. Can I feel real pain over a loss 2,000 years old when the Holocaust is still fresh in my generation’s memory? Do I want to make Tishe B’av more “relevant” by turning it into another Yom Hashoah?

But (there’s always “on the other hand” in Judaism) Tisha B’av is also about how we have lost the connection with the Shechinah who was in our midst every day when we had the Temple, about how we have lost the “grounding” and unity the Temple once gave us, about how we lost the Temple due to Jewish infighting that so plagues us today, and about all the destructions we bring upon ourselves and upon others with our power. Totally relevant from that point of view.

So, we went on a walking tour with Beit Shmuel, the Reform movement’s centre in Jerusalem. The theme of the walk was “Destruction and Restoration” and it presented a really interesting take on Tisha B’av: we looked at buildings in which the original facade was preserved but the inside of the building was new and modern. An apt metaphor for this whole city, which is a conglomeration of seemingly old structures (you can still see Ottoman Turkish writing on walls, ancient arches inside upscale clothing stores, and museums of “Theodore Herzl slept here” inside cafes) and incredibly up-to-the-minute Moshe Safdi architecture. Isn’t that what our Judaism is (or should be) in the modern period: the old facade—i.e. traditions, rituals, life cycle events— with a new inside—the service itself, Reform/ Conservative/ Reconstructionist/ Renewal prayerbooks, egalitarianism, Shabbat elevators??? The tour started with two readings, one from the Tanach and one from the poet Yehuda Amichai- again, a great metaphor for the mix of old and new that make up our lives as Jews.

What a scene in the Old City! Families walking in socks or barefoot (the prohibition against wearing leather) carrying low stools on their shoulders (like shiva, the tradition is to sit low or on the ground) and streams of hundreds and hundreds of people walking toward the Kotel while the muezzin calls Muslims for their evening prayer. Guys wearing literally sackcloths and ashes, lying on the ground weeping. And also lots of hippies in turbans and socializing youth groups.

Tisha B’av itself we spent as a day of meditation and reflection, talking about what we saw, what we felt. Tishe B’av gives us all alot of “food for thought” whether we fast or not and was a great beginning to our families “year of living thoughtfully.”

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thoughts on "Spiritual Aliyah"

Yehuda Halevi wrote, "My heart is in the East, but I am at the ends of the West..." I’ve often felt that I wanted to be in two places at once— Jerusalem and Toronto—since I don’t think the Diaspora is vapid and meaningless and the only place to live a full Jewish life is Israel. After all, the Talmud we use as authoritative was written in Babylonia, and our own vibrant Jewish community is a centre of Jewish life no less than any other Diaspora community has been for two thousand years, producing Jewish poetry, art, music, food, culture and identity. No amount of “you should make aliyah” guilt will inspire those who feel most at home here, who believe in the imperative to make that home an example of the best Judaism can offer: with synagogues, day schools, community centres, adult education institutes, Jewish film festivals, walks for Israel, charitable fundraising, and more. Bravo to those who keep the mitzvah to live in Eretz Yisrael, and bravo to those who build and sustain Jewish life here, and bravo to those who live somewhere in the middle.

So, let's think about aliyah in different terms. I was truly excited to hear of a new idea from my colleague Rabbi Stanley Davids, who coined the term aliyat hanefesh, or spiritual aliyah. Rabbi Paul Kipnes writes about this concept in the most recent Reform Rabbis newsletter and calls it “...a soul driven aliyah that places love for Israel near the centre of our lives. Aliyat hanefesh could be expressed by visits for study and for vacations, by making certain that our children and grandchildren have extensive personal experiences of Israel, by becoming informed advocates for Israel and by personally making certain to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday each May.” This notion of spiritual aliyah makes our frequent or even infrequent visits to Israel that much more meaningful. We aren’t just tourists, we are spiritual pilgrims. It conceptualizes and frames every letter to the editor, a trip to the wine store to counter-protest, the choice of Israel for winter break over Cancun, dancing with an Israeli flag at a rally, supporting a candidate for a Birthright trip. Each act is a soul driven aliyah that may or may not lead to settling in the land, but it is a “going up” all the same.

There are many texts in Rabbinic sources that point toward making physical aliyah. The Rabbis could never have imagined, though, the kind of flowering, safe diaspora we live in here in North America. So perhaps, for us, "spiritual aliyah" is a way of acknowledging that we have two children without having to choose which one we love better.