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.)