Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Don't say that it was better in the old days...

I keep seeing people posting 100+ year-old photos of men and women praying side by side at the Kotel, examples of an imagined paradise time when everyone prayed together and all was groovy.

The reason there was no mehitza (ritual divider between men and women) at the Kotel was that at various times the Ottoman authorities (and later the British) would not allow it. There is a reason you hardly see any furniture there.

The British at one stage had soldiers stationed at the Kotel to make sure no Jews sat down or brought benches or chairs, even beating Jews who tried to set up a mehitza or bring furniture to the Kotel.

Jews were not allowed to pray loudly and Jews were arrested by the British for bringing and trying to blow the shofar at the site. It was far from being a golden era, Jews prayed at the Kotel in fear and at their own risk.

Haj Amin al-Hussein, the senior Muslim authority at the time in Jerusalem tried to whip up anti-Jewish sentiment by implying that any Jewish furniture or hanging of lanterns at the Kotel was part of a Jewish attempt to eventually seize al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount from Muslim control. This eventually escalated in to anti-Jewish riots and the massacre of scores of Jews, including the infamous 1929 massacre of 69 members of the Hebron Jewish community. The British responded with even more draconian restrictions of Jewish access to the Kotel.

When Israel did finally gain control of the Kotel, setting it up as a place of prayer, with a mehitza, chairs and aron kodesh was a powerful symbol of Jewish sovereignty over this most sacred site after so many foreign rulers had forbidden anything that might be construed as Jewish ownership of the site.

All this isn't to say that the current situation is ideal, far from it, but we shouldn't pine for an imagined golden era that never was nor necessarily ascribe modern ideals and values to our 19th and early 20th century ancestors.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

O Jerusalem

It's a pleasantly chillyish (by local standards) June evening in Jerusalem.

City traffic is fouled up for a change by a US diplomatic mission motorcade, with more streets closed off around the Old City for Ramadan prayers and festivities. Business as usual in this city of religious holidays and shuttle diplomacy.

In the swank Mamilla pedestrian mall the foot traffic is every bit as busy. Elegant and expensively dressed Muslim Jerusalemites are enjoying the magic of Ramadan nights buying new clothes in the upscale shops for the upcoming Eid el Fitr celebration, feasting at the popular restaurants and cafes, many with stunning views of Jerusalem's trademark Old City walls.

Among them throng the first of the summer tour groups, Christian and Jewish students and pilgrims, massive groups from China who seem as fascinated by the religious tourists as by the locals themselves, all part of the Jerusalem experience.

There's no shortage of Israeli Jewish pedestrians either of every type and every level of religiosity (or none), some local, many who've come from out of town especially for the free show being projected three times a night, every night for fifty nights in commemoration of the city's reunification in the June 1967 Six Day War.

The railings facing the 40 foot walls leading up to the Jaffa Gate are packed well before the start of the show, spectators already getting in to the mood with the medley of Jerusalem songs playing over the loudspeakers, many singing along.

My children watch the clock counting down with eager anticipation. They know the words to almost all these songs, most of which were already "oldies" when I was a child. Maybe I'm an old fogey but I've been raising them with the household soundtracks of my youth.

And with a dramatically projected ticking clock it begins. Verses from Psalms alternate with flashes of Jerusalem's pivotal role in Jewish history, from Abraham and Jacob, the founding fathers of our people, to Solomon's Temple and its destruction at the hands of the Babylonian Nebuchadnetzer, Jerusalem's rebuilding in the time of Ezra and Nehamiah, destruction by Rome and centuries upon centuries of gradual Jewish return in dribs and drabs from the many lands of our exile, culminating in the city's dramatic restoration process begun by Moses Montifiore in the 19th century, and which continues to this day.

I am not usually one to get the weepies, but seeing the words of the Psalmist "If I forget thee O Jerusalem" writ large upon the Old City ramparts I felt my heart swell with such emotion and my eyes start to tear with a mix of awe and joy and stunned wonder that I here I was in a generation privileged to see such things.

I remember as a child visiting Jerusalem with my mother and her showing me where in her student days in the late 50s and early 60s she and her friends would go in the then divided city to catch glimpses of the Old City and the Jewish sites that lay forbidden in Jordanian occupied sectors of the city, beyond the wall and the barbed wire.

They were warned not to take out cameras, lest a trigger happy Jordanian soldier on the wall take a pot shot. The Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Rachel's Tomb - Judaism's most sacred places, were a dream many Jews feared they would never live to see.

About twenty five years later she would point out where back then there had been barbed wire and no man's land but where today we walked freely across the road, or which areas had been considered dangerous because they were within Jordanian sniper range, including exposed chunks of the terrace in the legendary King David hotel. 

We would walk along the old "seam" between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors with her pointing out the tenements on the Israeli side which faced the armistice line, their windows narrow slits on the side facing the Jordanian guard posts for fear of sniper fire. It wasn't even twenty years then since Israel had unified the city.

Strolling down Jaffa Road to the Old City in those days required passing by a chunk of wasteland, a mix of derelict buildings, historic structures and open land, scars from the time of the city's division.

This evening I walked with my children through that very place, the beautifully refurbished and renovated Yemin Moshe, Mishkenot Shaananim and of course, the glittering Mamilla pedestrian mall. Jewish and Arab families enjoying the mild June evening as they watched the fountain display in Teddy Park, and yet more people filling the nearby restaurants of Hutzot Hayotzer.

I have quite literally seen so much of Jerusalem rebuilt within my lifetime I can only imagine what it must be like for those older than me who've seen so much more.

Oh Imma, would that you could see what it has become now, you who thirty and twenty years ago marvelled at the city's rebirth in the wake of its 1967 reunification. how much it has grown and developed only in the last decade.

And so I could not hold back the tears at the scenes of the liberation of the Old City by the Israeli army in 1967. The paratroops wending their way through the alleys, the iconic photo of the tired but elated faces of the three soldiers at the Kotel, the historic radio message "The Temple Mount is in our hands". All bold text and lifelike pictures projected on to the city's 40 foot walls where once enemy snipers held the city's Jewish residents in fear of their lives. Two thousand years of blood, exile and tears brought to life on these walls which symbolised the hope of our people to return home from every remote corner of our exile.

I wept too because I grew up hearing this story first hand from people who lived it, from the tragic fall of the Old City to the Jordanians and subsequent exiling of its Jews during Israel's War of Independence to the fraught battles around Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. The restoration of Jewish sovereignty to our ancient capital and most sacred city may be miraculous, but it certainly has not been without cost.

My uncle told me how he visited the Kotel for the first time merely days after its liberation, the Old City still freshly scarred from the battles, exhausted dirty soldiers with vacant eyes trying to comprehend the whirlwind events, weeping soundlessly as they caressed the ancient stones.

My grandmother's eyes would grow moist as she recalled her visit to Jerusalem in the summer of 1967, part of a sea of Jews from across Israel and the world who descended on the Holy City to finally behold Judaism's most sacred heartland with their own eyes for the first time in their lives.

Fifty years later here I was with my family, my daughter celebrating her bat mitzva birthday in the year of Jerusalem's unification jubilee, watching the mix of history, Psalms, poetry and yes, also sentimental Israeli kitsche, play across the walls, broadcasting our love and yearning for Zion across the years and exiles.

This Jerusalem which today is the biggest and most sprawling it has ever been in all the thousands of years of its history, teeming with Torah learning, science, art, music and such a mix of peoples, languages and cultures, but at its heart, once more the living, breathing centre of Jewish life as in the days of ancient Israel. And my tears were tears of joy and tears of awe at this wonder of wonders.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

They Shall Not Pass

My mother visited Israel not long after the '73 War and came back with a few records of Israeli songs from that conflict, part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Songs that became Israeli classics like Naomi Shemer's "Lu Yehi" (Let It Be) and Yehoram Gaon's "Ani Mavtiah Lakh" (I Promise You).

Songs that prayed for peace, for the safe return of loved ones serving at the front, about the desire to live normally without threat of conflict constantly hanging over Israel, the loss of youthful innocence as yet another generation underwent a baptism of fire, gratitude to God and the dedicated men and women protecting Israel's borders from enemies bent on the destruction of the Jewish state.

This song isn't one of the best known, but it stuck in my mind as a child. A song originally recorded by the Golani entertainment troupe during the war it's strident tone directed at the enemy "You shall not pass" and vivid imagery struck a chord, especially as I knew that some of my mother's friends or their children had fought on the Golan.

It wasn't until I learnt the biblical book of Amos as a teen that I fully understood the reference in the song's opening. I think of these verses often in recent years as the horrific war in neighbouring Syria goes on and on with no clear end in sight, every so often spilling over the border with a "stray" shell or rocket or mortar landing on the Israeli side, mostly without injury, but also killing and wounding Israelis working or living near the border fence, most recently hurting a young girl from the moshav of Alonei Habashan near the Syrian border.

The passage from Amos seemed to describe the chaos and displacement of the war in Syria and a government that had pushed its own people too far with its oppression and harsh rule.

ג כה, אמר ה", על-שלושה פשעי דמשק, ועל-ארבעה לא אשיבנו: על-דושם בחרוצות הברזל, את-הגלעד. ד ושילחתי אש, בבית חזאל; ואכלה, ארמנות בן-הדד. ה ושברתי, בריח דמשק, והכרתי יושב מבקעת-אוון, ותומך שבט מבית עדן; וגלו עם-ארם קירה, אמר ה" (עמוס, פרק א)
 3 Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, Because they have threshed Gilead with implements of iron. 4 But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, Which shall devour the palaces of Ben-Hadad. 5 I will also break the gate bar of Damascus, And cut off the inhabitant from the Valley of Aven, And the one who holds the scepter from Beth Eden. The people of Syria shall go captive to Kir,” Says the Lord.

The truce that ended the Yom Kippur War kept the border with Syria quiet for decades with a clear DMZ between the sides policed by UN peacekeepers and a border gate that allowed the passage of Golan Druze from Israel to Syria for family visits, marriages and studies. When Syria combusted all of that gradually fell apart, peacekeepers held hostage by militias on the Syrian side, the rhythm of life on the Syrian side of the Golan turned to turmoil and atrocities.

More than ever this song from over 40 years ago is relevant to our region. Please Hashem keep the soldiers on the Golan strong and alert to protect our northern borders and all who dwell close to it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Tory and the Communist

Indulge me a ramble through childhood memories.

When I was a kid my uncle, an Orthodox Jew, fan of Mrs Thatcher and an activist in the Campaign for Soviet Jewry, and one of his best friends, a card carrying member of the British Communist Party and secular humanist, would always greet each other thus, if you'll excuse the post-Holocaust Jewish black humour "We may disagree on almost everything, but if and when they round up the Jews again, they'll put us side by side against the wall to be shot".

The message was clear, their politics were polar opposite from each other, but they still knew they were brothers and they knew full well that only a few decades earlier Jews of every kind regardless of religious or political affiliation had been slaughtered wholesale simply because they were Jews.

It was a very powerful message to grow-up with.

At Shabbat or Sunday tea time in our home you could find trades union activists and city gents, Zionists, internationalists, fans of Mr Begin and supporters of Shulamit Aloni, Hassidim, dyed in the wool British "establishment" Jews who's ancestors had come over in the 17th century, veterans of WWs I and II, Jews who'd fled Iraq, Germany, Iran, the USSR, Poland, Pakistan, Egypt and Aden, lots and lots of teachers and academics, members of the British Conservative, Labour, Communist and Liberal Democratic parties, the odd Likud member and on one occasion Labour MK Avrum Burg.

Many were Orthodox Jews, many were not, some were the very proper British Anglican retirees from the top of the street, or the Pakistani Muslim neighbours from across the road who's grandmother liked to practise her English and swap recipes with my Bubbe, the family of Lithuanian dissidents who were terrified that the KGB were after them, or the Cypriot Christian couple from round the corner who came especially for my grandmother's rogelakh and cinnamon-raisin kikhelakh.

The biggest lesson I learnt from all this was that people do not fit in to neat boxes, right or left, black or white, positive or negative. Or rather that there good be people who were absolute evil, but those were thankfully rare, and the vast majority were far more complex than that, and that most were fundamentally decent people trying to figure out what was good and just in a turbulent world. The fact that many reached opposing conclusions on this did not negate their humanity or their decency.

It seems trite to have to say this, but it is one of the most valuable life lessons I ever learnt from my family, that you can be resolute in your own opinions, ideals and values, and yet have a home which is open to those who disagree with you, are diametrically opposed to you, are completely and utterly different from you. You can share afternoon tea and biscuits while have a civil but heated debate about everything under the sun. And you can still be friends and neighbours when you've agreed to disagree.

Just because this is a cliche does not make it less true.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ma'ala Ma'ala

We had to run an errand next to the Ramle on Friday to a mason's workshop. We've had some urgent repairs to carry out on our flat, among them replacing a counter top.

Not terribly exciting stuff you might think except that the workshop and office are located at the edge of Ramle's bustling shuk, a warren of old alleys, historic buildings, derelict buildings and a general feeling of Israel as it was 30 or more years ago, as though time has stood still. 

The towns of Ramle and Lod are home to a substantial Indian Jewish community, and Israeli-Indian singer Liora Yitzhak filmed the video clip for her recent single "Ma'ala Ma'ala" at the colourful Ramle-Lod market. Wending our way through the Friday crowds with her Bollywood inspired routines playing in my mind's eye I half expected folks to erupt in song and dance at any moment.

Reaching the workshop we were instead greeted by the most beautiful Yemeni Hebrew singing of prayers for the High Holy Days rising above row after row of neatly stacked slabs of shiny granite and the din of powerful industrial strength fans and tools. On the factory floor, covered in white stone dust from kipa to shoes, stood the chief stone mason, practicing his Yom Kippur davening while cutting counter tops. If he ever records an album I will be first in line to buy it, truly an amazing voice.

Our business concluded he and the sales woman in the office sent us on our way with a plethora of blessings for the New Year, smiles and kisses for our babies and more delightful singing.

Out in the shuk again preparations for the coming holidays were in full swing. I started thinking of Liora Yitzhak's song again, with it's focus on starting afresh, maybe it's the time of year, maybe it's just the out of left field way my mind works, but somehow it always makes me think of the Yom Kippur hymn "Ya'aleh Tahnuneinu", about our prayers ascending to Heaven.

May all our prayers breach the gates of Heaven, may we all be blessed with a year of positive new beginnings, good health and creative energy. Gmar hatima tova. May we all be inscribed in the book of life and all good things.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In thy blood, live

"And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live;" (Ezekiel 16:6)

It's a strange time of year to be in Israel, plumbing the depths of pain and the heights of elation. A few friends asked me today how people here do it. How they can be mourning the loss of thousands of our finest men and women while preparing for tonight's celebration of independence. 

How you can go in to a shop today, grief stricken, emotions churning from the very public mourning all around, but the cashier will wish you "hag sameah", happy holidays, in advance of Independence Day. 

The contrast is jarring, even offensive, and yet it is so natural because the two aren't separate, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut are two sides of the same coin and you cannot have one without the other. 

You can't have the joy of Sukkot without the sombre reflection of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

You can't celebrate our freedom on Pesah without recalling the terrible suffering of our slavery in Egypt. 

You don't have the celebratory joy of a wedding without breaking the glass and remembering the destruction of ancient Jerusalem and the Temple, and the terrible loss of Jewish life and freedom those events led to.

It's a very Jewish perspective of the balance of life and of acknowledging the cost of our freedom and thanking those who sacrificed before allowing ourselves to celebrate that freedom. There is no completely unbridled joy, but by the same token there is no mourning without hope. Even as the biblical prophets describe the horrors about to be inflicted on Israel they speak also of the comfort of the redemption that will come too. 

While it can feel wrenching for someone to be thinking of tomorrow's holiday even as you yourself are in the depths of today's mourning, that is part of the message. Our mourning isn't pointless, our losses were not without meaning.

Religious Jews add something important between Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut, a special prayer service which adds perspective to both. Before eating we say a blessing over our food, before celebrating our independence after centuries of harsh exile we thank God for this miracle of national rennaissance and pray for those who perished in its realisation. 

I often hear my American friends saying "freedom isn't free" and bemoaning the way that they feel their nation fails to acknowledge the price paid for their independence and comfort. 

In Israel it's built in to the culture, not just because we still have a draft, not just because our nation remains threatened by hostile neighbours 68 years after our battle for independence, but because of this link between our Memorial Day and Independence Day. Every schoolchild knows that you don't celebrate Israel's birthday without first honouring and thanking those who sacrifice to keep us safe.

It's all one package. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Never Forget

My grandmother had an album where she kept photos sent to her and her aunt by her sisters'-in-law in what was then Poland (today Ukraine). These are some of the 60 members of my grandparents' family who were murdered by the Nazis - men, women, children and babies. Some murdered in the forest by local Nazi sympathisers, others in the Belzac death camp.

 We know what happened to them because another cousin managed to survive the war by pretending to be a Polish Catholic. She spoke fluent Polish, wore a cross, attended church regularly, memorised Catholic prayers and was able to pass as a Polish Catholic woman. Unable to rescue any other family members she witnessed their fate, including the murder of her own husband and baby.

They are ordinary people taking ordinary family photos with no idea that this would be all that remained of them because they themselves would be turned to ash and dust by strangers who hated them simply because they were Jews.

They were not "collateral damage", their deaths were not an accident of war or plague or natural disaster or famine but cold calculated murder by the Nazis and their allies who devoted huge resources from their formidable war machine to the erradication of these peaceful civilians simply because they were Jews.

The mind cannot fathom the meaning of 6 million human beings let alone the mass murder of 6 million human beings. It doesn't have to though. Look at these children and parents, these are the faces of the 6 million, the silent testimony to the evils some of the most technologically advanced and supposedly civilised nations on Earth carried out against some of the most productive, hard working, learned and peaceful people on Earth. .

These are the family I will never know, the great-aunts and uncles and cousins who exist only as photos because they were exterminated by Hitler's henchmen. The children who are forever children, reminding us of the children they never bore, the generations of cousins who never were, the gaping hole in our family.

They have no voices, we must be their voices, voices which refuse to let the world forget or twist the memory of the Holocaust.

If you hear people question, if you hear Holocaust deniers or belittlers, supposed academics who question whether it really happened, don't be silent. Keep these photos in your mind, remember these faces of those murdered in the Holocaust, remember them and their suffering, their horrific deaths.

Etch the warning in to your soul - even the most civilised, rational and scientific men and woman are capable of the most heinous crimes against their fellow humans. Do not let others say "it could not happen today", "it could not happen here". Never forget so that it may never happen again.