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.


  1. Wow.
    Elie Weisel's quote, how very interesting. From of all people.
    Rav Elyse,you paint a picture of Jerusalem that is full of colour and so fascinating. Vivid.
    When I read about the "sexually suggestive men all the time" I thought "Really? Still?" I have memories (from 22 years ago) of standing in the Tel Aviv bus station, waiting for a bus, and that was all it took to have an Israeli soldier come and proposition you.
    I found your friend's comment, about going to live in another Jewish state if it existed elsewhere, hilarious. That somewhat dry, yet rooted in realism, Israeli sense of humour.
    And your dinner companion's statement that she hated Jerusalem but wanted to hate it from living there...I would have liked to have heard more of that conversation.
    Perhaps Jerusalem is the city that should have been chosen for ITS diversity in the TIFF "City to City Spotlight". I'm sure you have heard about the most recent and unfortunate bruhaha here over the TIFF'S "Spotlight on Tel Aviv".

    May this year bring opportunites leading us closer to peace.
    I wish you and your family a Shana Tova,
    Hilary Moore

  2. "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"
    Let's check that for accuracy, shall we?
    Am I sexist because I go to a synagogue (or get on a bus) with a mechitza, for the sole reason that gender separation is the halachic tradition of my forefathers? Maybe for that reason alone, I am to you being injust, silly, extremist and bad-mannered as well.
    I may be wrong, but it seems to me that as long as you insist on men and women sitting together no matter what, you're being no less close-minded than the haredim whom you so disrespectfully generalized into a bunch of diaper-hauling hooligans.
    I'm not planning on convincing you anyway, so if this is a "machloket she-eynah l'shem shamayim" (which it probably is), then I apologize and kindly disregard.