Thursday, January 01, 2015

What Holy People! עם ישראל קדושים הם!

Today was the 10th of Tevet. It is a public fast day which is widely observed, although many
otherwise observant Jews do not fast, seeing that it is one of the "minor" fast days. Halakha allows people who feel unwell, the elderly etc. to eat.

So, here's the story. Today I was walking through one of Jerusalem's shopping malls. I saw a man who I know as a "kippa wearer" walking in front of me. He was bare-headed. My thought was: "Interesting! ... Maybe he doesn't cover his head all the time; maybe just in a Torah class, or when eating. OK! No problem."

Then I noticed that he was drinking water: "OK!" I thought to myself. "He is an older man. Possibly he has medical reasons to drink. Maybe he was never raised fasting and he doesn't fast on 10 Tevet."

But 2 minutes later, he put the bottle down, and re-fastened his kippa. Suddenly I understood. He does wear a kippa. But he didn't want to be seen drinking water in public while wearing a kippa, so he took it off to drink on a fast-day.

And I thought how amazing his sensitivity was, to the meaning of wearing a kippa, to the sanctity of the day, and I just thought עם ישראל קדושים הם - We are a holy nation!

In Judaism, we are taught to דן כל אדם לכף זכות - To judge every human in a generous way (Avot 1:6). It is a practice that I try to apply (I'm not always successful), assuming that most people are not ill-intended, or deliberately nasty. This was a great reminder how we should never judge a book by its cover, but instead always assume that people have the best intentions in mind.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Holding Hands in the Face of Terror


Yesterday was by all means a terrible day. We woke innocently enough, but as I finished my morning minyan, the awful news broke. Two terrorists had attacked a shul in Har Nof and, using revolvers and butcher's knives, had shot and hacked and killed 5 Israelis and injured many more. From that moment, the entire day turned dark, black. I genuinely felt that I was in a haze all day, finding it hard not to migrate repeatedly to the news on the radio and internet, and then again turning it off because it was all too horrific, too raw.

But here was yesterday's silver lining. Something else happened yesterday, right by my home in Gush Etzion. It was a wonderful, uplifting moment. It was a human chain. 2, 000 high school kids decided to join hands to celebrate life and to embrace their desire to grow up peacefully and to live in Gush Etzion.

What stimulated this event? Well, the previous week, Gush Etzion was yet again rocked by a dreadful terror attack. A young woman, Dalia Lemkus z"l stood at a bus stop on her way home from work. She was a social worker and had spent the day helping underprivileged youth in Kiryat Gat. As she stood waiting, a car suddenly ploughed into the bus stop running her over. The terrorist proceeded to get out and stab her to death as he went on a frenzied rampage. 

This attack took place at about 4:35pm. Five minutes earlier at 4:30pm, at my daughter's school 300 yards away, the 9th grade had just been released. Many schoolgirls take a bus from that same bus stop. The school went into panic, everyone feared that it was one of their friends. A "lockdown" was declared as soldiers scanned the area to ensure that other terrorists were not lurking in the vicinity. The girls recited Tehillim (psalms) and cried and hugged one another.

In the end, thankfully, all the schoolchildren were fine, but tragically, a fine beautiful young woman was killed. And the schoolgirls asked themselves how they might respond? What could they do? The 11th grade came up with the idea of a human chain. Their motto was :  "בלב אחד נמשיך לפעום We will continue to beat with one heart...". Their website says: "This is not a protest or a demonstration - it is our empowerment." Indeed, it wasn't a protest - it was an attempt to express love, determination, community, life - עם ישראל חי!


Who are these kids? They are my children, teenagers of my friends and neighbours. Fun-loving, ordinary, talented, phone-addicted teenagers. These kids get around by buses and hitchhikes. Their summer began with three of their schoolmates being kidnapped at a bus stop they all use. For 3 weeks we all sat tearing our hair out worrying, and then we discovered their bodies and understood that they had been brutally murdered. Then there was the Gaza war with many fathers and brothers in the line of fire. And in the latest chapter of carnage, a lovely 26 year old woman was killed at a local bus (just across the road from where the boys were abducted.) These teenagers have had to deal with an abnormal amount of emotional trauma lately. Ordinary questions like taking a bus become dilemmas of life and death.

So look at this incredible response. Maybe the girls wanted to cry. They certainly did. Possibly some wanted to give up, to respond to the tension and death by falling out of school. Who knows? (- I am sure school psychologists have a harder time in Israel.) I am sure quite a number were filled with anger, even hate. But they did something different, something impressively positive. Yesterday, the young women of Neve Channa who thought that one of their friends had been killed at that bus stop, decided not to protest, not to call for "Death to Arabs" or "Destroy the terrorist homes." They created a gesture remarkable in its dignity. They turned the pain inwards and upwards and directed it into building and strengthening the community. They invited all the local high schools to make a chain which stretched 2 miles, from the main Gush Etzion junction, past the bus stop, and ending at Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz that housed the school where Gilad Sheer and Naftali Frenkel had studied. The schools supported their initiative, the police and army fell into line, and the municipality offered logistical support. This was their statement, their empowerment.

The stood together with their friends, in unity, hand in hand, to reclaim their road. They said "עם ישראל חי!" We belong here. We will continue to live, grow and flourish in our beloved land, here in Gush Etzion.

I am really proud of them.




Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's in a fifty Shekel Note?


Today I took money out of the ATM and received the new fifty shekel note. It looks like this.

The figure on the note is Shaul Tchernikovsky (1875-1943), one of Israel's most lauded of the "1st generation" Zionist poets. There is barely a city in Israel that doesn't have a street named after him; he is truly one of the greats. I took a look at the verse printed on the note and it reads:

כי עוד אאמין באדם,
גם ברוחו, רוח עז.
For I shall believe in mankind
In its spirit great and bold

Now, this phrase comes from Tchernikovsky's poem אני מאמין (see English and Hebrew) popularly know as שחקי שחקי due to the opening words. It was written in 1892 when he was just 17 years of age, in Odessa. Let us recall that this is before Herzlian Zionism, before the Zionist congresses. As such, his words express an almost prophetic confidence in Mankind, and in the revival and future statehood of the Jewish people:
אאמינה גם בעתיד,
אף אם ירחק זה היום,
אך בוא יבוא - ישאו שלום,
אז וברכה לאום מלאום.

ישוב יפרח אז גם עמי,
ובארץ יקום דור,
ברזל- כבליו יוסר מנו,
עין-בעין יראה אור.

I believe in the future,
Even if that day is far off
But it will come, when nations
All live in blessed peace.

Then my people too will flourish
And a strong generation shall arise
In the land, shake off its chains
And see light in every eye.
From this perspective, Tchernikovsky certainly should find his place on the Israeli banknote as one of the inspired visionaries and precursors of the modern Jewish state. So, why am I feeling ambivalent about this new banknote? Well, I LOVED the "old" 50 NIS.

It had Agnon on it with his huge black kippa. But what I really loved was a lengthy quotation (in tiny print) which is one of the most inspiring and beautiful Zionist-Jewish statements I have ever read! It is Agnon's speech upon receiving his Nobel Prize for literature in 1966. It reads:

As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem. In a dream, in a vision of the night, I saw myself standing with my brother-Levites in the Holy Temple, singing with them the songs of David, King of Israel, melodies such as no ear has heard since the day our city was destroyed and its people went into exile. I suspect that the angels in charge of the Shrine of Music, fearful lest I sing in wakefulness what I had sung in dream, made me forget by day what I had sung at night; for if my brethren, the sons of my people, were to hear, they would be unable to bear their grief over the happiness they have lost. To console me for having prevented me from singing with my mouth, they enable me to compose songs in writing.
The Jewish heritage of this man oozes out of this speech, just as his literature is imbued with so much Talmudic and midrashic inspiration, so much imagery of the Jewish landscape of Eastern Europe, and of Jewish texts (along with a hefty dose of cynicism and irony!)

Back to Tchernikovsky. His poem is in many ways a repudiation of religion. It is called "Ani Maamin - I believe" as a play on the traditional 13 principles of faith that proclaim belief in God, Torah and the waiting for the Messiah. Tchernikovsky grew up in a religious home. He knew his religion. Tchernikovsky's "Ani Maamin" rejects religion and replaces God with Mankind:
כי באדם אאמין .... כי גם ברעות אאמין ... אאמינה גם בעתיד,
I believe in Mankind
... I believe in friendship
... I believe in the future

The poem includes many linguistic interplays with pesukim in Tanakh, but secularizing and inverting its intent (examples include לאום מלאום\ עין בעין יראה אור \ שיר חדש ישיר המשורר ליופי ...).

So, when i see the paean: "Rejoice, for I’ll have faith in mankind, For in mankind I believe," I feel ambivalent. I know that Tchernikhovsky was an inspiration to the revival of our national home, and yet, my soul misses Agnon's religious temperament.

Here is the classic version of ""sachki":









And here the Avishai Cohen jazz instrumental version:



Sunday, May 04, 2014

Yom Hazikaron 5774/2014 - "Children of Winter '73"

Yom Hazikaron in Israel is a day which has a distinctive soundtrack; some speak of it as a "secular prayerbook." It is a prayerbook, because these songs  form a liturgy of sorts; always the same sombre songs. After a while, these hallowed cultural milestones - beautiful songs, the best of Israeli poetry, which speak of memory, loss, longing, friendship, love, and yes, death in war - take on a sanctity and reverence that is unequaled in Israeli society. The songs that are played on TV, on the radio, at ceremonies in schools and public squares. They are a musical canon, starting with  poetry and tunes of pre-State Israel, on to the War of Independence and all the wars, until today. 

I recall, when I was a new Oleh, that I visited my cousin's house one motzaei shabbat. He was listening to the news as I entered the house. He turned off the radio and said: "Someone must have been killed in Lebanon." His wife replied: "Did they announce it on the news?" He said: "No! But they wouldn't play that song after the news unless someone had been killed." Sure enough, later that evening, the newscaster announced that two soldiers had been killed.

These songs are a code, a language that we imbibe when we live here.

One incredible song, that brings me to tears virtually any time I hear it is the song called הילדים של חורף י73. Listen to it here. Hebrew words are here, English here.


We are the children of winter 1973.
You dreamt us first at dawn at the end of the battles,
You were tired men that thanked their good luck,
You were worried young women and you wanted so much to love,
When you conceived us with love in winter 1973,
You wanted to your bodies to be full with that which the war had destroyed.

And when we were born the country was wounded and sad,
You looked at us you hugged us you were trying to find comfort,
When we were born the elders blessed with tears in their eyes,
They said:" we wish those kids will not have to go to the army",
And your faces in the old picture prove,
That you said it form the bottom of your hearts,
When you promised to do every thing for us,
To turn a foe into a friend.

You promised a dove,
an olive tree leaf,
you promised peace
You promised spring at home and blossoms
You promised to fulfill promises, you promised a dove

We are the children of winter 1973
We grew up, and are now in the army, holding our rifle,
Helmet on our heads
We know how to make love to laugh and cry,
We are men we are women,
and we too dream about babies.

This is why we will not pressure nor will we demand,
And we will not threaten!
When we were young you said "promises need to be kept".
If strength is what you need, we will give it, 
We will not hold back
We just wanted to whisper
We are the children of that winter in the year 1973

You promised a dove,
an olive tree leaf,
you promised peace
You promised spring at home and blossoms
You promised to fulfill promises,
you promised a dove

So what is this song about? It was written in 1994 by Shmuel Hasfari, one of the veterans of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, a man who lost his best friend in that war. He was at the time working with the army's musical troupe - "lahakat hanachal" and he looked at his soldiers and realized that they were the same age that he had been when he was called to battle in 1973. He sat down and wrote the song.

To fully understand it, let me refer to another song... Yehoram Gaon's song "Ani mavtiah lach". It was a song born in 1973 and extremely popular. In that song, Yehoram Gaon promises his little girl, in the name of all the soldiers who fought, that "This will be the last war". "Children of Winter 1973" is a response of sorts to that song.

 
Who are the "Children of Winter 1973"? These are the kids born after the Yom Kippur War, a campaign in which Israel suffered a huge death toll, but possibly more significantly, a war that inflicted a tremendous knock to Israeli morale. These are the children conceived by parents and raised in a society still hurting, humiliated and wounded from the war. And  their birth brought the hope of regeneration, the promise of new life after the horrible losses of the war. Grandparents hoped that these kids would never go to war; that there would be peace. Parents told their kids that they would grow up in a different era. But the children conceived in the winter of 1973 grow up and find themselves in a country still at war, still in the army, and peace was far off. In the song, they challenge their parents naive optimism. They express their willingness to fight and defend our country. But they suggest that parents should be more careful with their optimistic promises. We should be cautious before we assure the next generation that we will bring them peace.

Some in the Israeli public viewed this song as arrogant, or anti military. I see it as a powerful story of the realism that is modern Israel. I recall, in my child, a storybook in which Yoni and Mustafa join hands and march into a rainbow decorated future. Those books don't exist today. This is a sobering song, because it suggests that war is our reality for the time being; that many generations will still need to fight in order to ensure that the future will eventually bring peace. And as the song says, "If strength is what you need, we will give it, We will not hold back." The children/adults in the song are people who serve in the military and are willing to pay the price, but they are also in a space in which they don't suffer from the delusion that there is going to be an imminent solution to Israel's conflicted reality.

If this song was appropriate for 1994 when it was written, then it is all the more apt for Yom Hazikaron 2014.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Upcoming US Lecture Tour. Feb 17-23


Date and Time
Where
Topic
1.    Mon 17th Feb
PENN (OCP)
God's non-Image
2.    Tue 18th
(morning)

Ramaz Upper School – Students and faculty

3.    Tue 18th
8pm
Cong. Mt Sinai
Washington Heights
The Ezra Revolution: How a Simple Scribe changed Judaism Forever.
4.    Wed 19th

Maayanot School
- Students & parents
Pride, Humility and the Distortion of Religion. The Story of Naaman (II Kings ch.5)
5.    Wed 19th
8-9:15pm
YU Seform Sale
Meet the Author  
6.    Thurs 20th
SAR High School
Students and Faculty

7.    Thurs 20th
6:30pm
Drisha
The Ezra Revolution: How a Simple Scribe changed Judaism Forever.
8.    Thurs 20
8:30pm
NYU
Mishmar
9.    Friday 21
8:30am
Yeshivat Chovevai Torah
Parshat Hashavua
10.     Fri Night Oneg
Young Israel Ohab Zedek Riverdale/Yonkers
"Tanakh Study: Contemporary Controversies"
11. Shabbat a.m.
The Power of Creativity
12. Shabbat p.m.
Can we be one people?
- From Book of Kings to present day
13. Sunday 23rd  a.m.
Cong. Rinat Yisrael Teaneck
Jeroboam: The first "Social Protest"?