Thursday, October 08, 2015

Righteous neighbours

With all the horrific insanity of recent weeks, especially the bloodcurdling video of local Arab shopkeepers taunting the critically injured young Jewish mother and her baby in the Old City,I just wanted to mention an article I read recently, can't remember where.

It was the story of a Jewish family living in Hebron during the 1929 pogrom against the Jewish community there by their Arab neighbours. One family was saved by an Arab friend of the family. She hid them in her house. It turned out that her husband was one of the rioters out massacring Jews and he realised she was hiding a Jewish family. An Arab mob besieged the house and demanded that she hand them over. She responded that they'd have to kill her first. The mob relented and the Jewish family were saved.

More recently a car of visiting American yeshiva students took a wrong turn in Hebron and they too were set upon by a mob. A local Arab man rescued them from the bloodthirsty crowd, sheltering them in his home until Israeli security forces could arrive to take them to safety.

Our Arab neighbours are being egged on by their leadership to glorify the murder of Jews, to go out and perpetrate more acts of terrible bloodshed. In these days of once again feeling like we have to second guess every Arab to see if they have a knife it's important to remember that there are also many good, decent and level headed people among our Arab neighbours, though tragically not among the mainstream leadership.

They are the hope that one day the madness will end.

I pray that speedily and in our day their voices will be heard loud and clear.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Hallah for all

Observed waiting at the doc's office today:

Nurses, one with big Breslov style tikhel, chatting about getting together with a local hallah maven to do hafrashat hallah and workshop.

Elegantly dressed Russian accented woman joins in excitedly "I just did hafrashat hallah this morning too, can I join?"

Nurses enthusiastically welcome her to their hallah baking group.

Russian accented woman suddenly looks a little pensive "Your group is kosher though, right? Because I'm a goya."

Breslov tikhel nurse doesn't miss a beat, smiles warmly "Of course, this is Israel, all your ingredients are kosher, you're welcome."

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Yom Yerushalayim Part II

Today, Jerusalem Day, I see throngs of Jewish youth and families clad in blue and white, clutching flags and glowing with the joy of the day as they pour in to Jerusalem from all over Israel.

Call me a soft touch but I still get a warm fuzzy feeling from seeing parents and children all clad in their Sabbath finest in honour of Yom Yerushalayim, starched white shirts gleaming in the sun, their faces overcome with the awe and gratitude of meriting to live in an era when Jews are free to come to the holy city once again ruled by a Jewish government after the millennia of our exile.

I too am awed at the privilege of being able to so casually walk over to the Western Wall to pray, of riding a bus whose route just happens to take us past the iconic walls of the Old City. I remember only too well my family's stories of visiting Jerusalem in the 50s and 60s, when not only were Judaism's holiest sites barred to Jews by the Jordanian occupation, but the city itself was divided through the centre by barbed wire and concrete barriers and walking through much of the city centre put Israelis at risk of Jordanian snipers who would from time to time take pot shots at civilians on the Israeli side of the armistice line. 

For all the problems and disputes faced by modern Jerusalem, how different it is today when older border areas like Mamilla, once a slum in the shadow of Jordanian snipers are now a glittering shopping and entertainment district where Jews, Arabs, Christians and tourists mingle in the just outside the walls of the Old City. I am not so naive as to think that Jerusalem's problems are solved, but neither am I so ungrateful as to ignore the improvements made in the last decades since the city was reunited. There is still much work to be done, but I am always hopeful.

More than anything though it is this everyday coexsitence, whether born of ideals or of practicality, that inspires me on Yom Yerushalayim. 

At one of my classes this morning the lecturer, a gifted man who is Bible scholar, historian and local tour guide, was talking about ancient Jerusalem in the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Not the most joyous of periods. The most striking concept I took away from that talk was his idea about Isaiah's prophecies in that bleak period.

A new world order was developing thoughout the region, Assyria ascendent was a new power bent on military and cultural domination on a scale not seen until then.

Assyrian kings like Tilgat Pileser and Sanheirib marched across the ancient Middle East sweeping the smaller ancient kingdoms and city states before them, relocating vast numbers of people in what was effectively cultural genocide, erasing historic cities, nations, faiths and languages in their wake, uniting the region under a cruel regime, one language and by default, increasingly one culture emanating from Ninveh. 

Alone in this tide of destruction Jerusalem managed to survive, even as Sanheirib's forces laid waste to the northern kingdom of Israel and the other major cities of the kingdom of Judah, most famously Lakhish. Jerusalem herself suffered siege, waves of refugees flooding the city, but at the end of the day whether one calls it divine miracle or luck, Sanheirib was forced to retreat in disgrace, the walls of Jerusalem unbreached, a lone beacon of resistance.

This was the backdrop for Isaiah's famous prophecies of peace, brotherhood, the wolf and the lamb and swords in to ploughshares, an ideological resistance to the crushing militarism being broadcast from the Assyrian capital Ninveh, its palaces adorned with images like the famous Lakhish frieze depicting in gruesome details the destruction of that Judean city, the torture of captured Judean officers and the pitiful Jewish refugees fleeing the scene. Isaiah's response was to respond with a rival vision for the region, embodied by emphasising the message of Jerusalem as a city of peace, compassion and the humanity.

The modern day ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital Ninveh are adjacent to the modern Iraqi Kurdish city of Mosul. It sits on the frontline of the regional war between the forces of the Islamic State (ISIL) and those Kurds, Shiites and Iraqi government forces opposing their advance. Modern Mosul and the nearby Assyrian ruins have been sacked by ISIL, the proud remnants of Assyrian power, their idols, temples and friezes, laid waste by ISIL weaponry because of their heretical pre-Islamic character. Were the Lakhish frieze not safely ensconsed in the Assyrian gallery of the British Museum it too would have met the same fate.

Jerusalem stands in stark contrast to the flames whipping around our region. Despite the conflicts and tensions, occasional acts of violence, its message is one of people who on a daily basis are managing to live together, to make the city work, whether by accident or design the closest emodiment of Isaiah's prophetic vision in the Middle East today. Jerusalem is far from perfect, but one of the messages of Yom Yerushalayim is very much this voice of Isaiah, an Israeli ruled Jerusalem which is open to all faiths and all peoples, a message that we can live together in this most sacred of cities.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Yom Yerushalayim Part 1

I'm delighted that this year I've been able to return to my Torah studies in Jerusalem, even more so that it's with my daughter in tow, having a chance to share with her not only the pleasure of in depth Bible study with some amazing scholars but also to have a weekly date with her in Jerusalem.

One of my greatest joys has always been spending time in Jerusalem, just walking her streets, riding the buses, being part of this wonderful frustrating holy impossible city and giving my daugher a more in depth knowledge of the city beyond its holiness and major historic sites, an appreciation for how special she is even in the mundane workings of her streets, neighbourhoods, markets and buses.

The Jerusalem stories that make the headlines tend not to be the everyday observations that are truly what make this city function. News reports only seem to pick up on points of tension, of Arab against Jew or rigid old school religious populations clashing with the city's more liberal populations. And it's true, yes, there is no shortage of problems here, of cultural conflict, of political and national aspirations doomed to butt heads it seems for all eternity.

And yet for me this is not the true headline of Jerusalem, this isn't the real news story. I can never read books when riding the buses, I'm too busy watching the people, my fellow passengers, the stories of the people outside my window. My Jerusalem is one which despite the international news reports to the contrary is one of de facto coexistence, disparate peoples thrust together and united by their love and connection to the city.

My Jerusalem is the young Hareidi ultra-Orthodox man hopping off the bus to aid an elderly lady, her gnarled hands trying to juggle hoisting herself on to the bus and her bulging bags of produce from the market. He nimbly grabs her bags in one hands, offers her his other to help her mount the steep step up from the street, and then gives up his seat to her so that she can sit quickly near the front of the bus before it lurches off on it's route.

It is the middle aged woman who sees a heavily pregnant woman and her frail elderly companion get on a crowded bus and who immediately sets about rearranging the passengers, Jews, Arabs, Christian clergy and tourists, so that these women will have somewhere to sit near the front. 

Or the older man who looks like he's doing an impression of the Fonz, all slicked dyed black hair, tight white t-shirt and gold medallion who sees an elderly couple struggling to get off the bus at their stop and hails the driver loudly "Driver, driver, wait up, what if these were your grandparents trying to disembark!" while at the same time holding the door open for them and lending a hand as they gingerly step down to the pavement, then helping a mother with a baby pram on to the bus, offering to go to the front to swipe her bus pass for her so she can stay with the unwieldy buggy and baby.

It is the teens and college students who've organised a sort of voluntary squad of helps who offer to carry heavy shopping for those doing their groceries at the Mahane Yehuda Market. The Arab produce vendor who seeds a poor Hareidi woman telling her children they can't afford the latest in season fruit and they'll have to make do with just the basics, so while she's rummaging in her purse he slips a an extra bag with fine winter red oranges and strawberries into her meagre shopping basket without her noticing. Turning to me, the next customer, he says, "It's a big holiday coming up you know (this is just around Hannukah), and the Sabbath soon, she should have something special for the children."

It is the fact that according to several studies and surveys beggars make more money in Jerusalem than anywhere else, this despite Jerusalem being one of Israel's poorer cities with many populations who struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis.

It is the young modern Orthodox Ethiopian yeshiva student in his white shirt and knitted yarmulka learning Gemara while riding the bus. An older Hassidic man gets on and sits next to him, peers over his shoulder at the page of Gemara, hesitates, and then in heavily Yiddish accented Hebrew asks the younger man about his studies. They spend the rest of the ride discussing the sugya. I'm sitting behind them and can just about make out that the matter at hand is Masekhet Brakhot, the section dealing with the blessings one makes over fruits and how one decides which to bless and eat first.

It is the ambulance pulling up to help someone who has collapsed in the street, and the paramedics who leap out of the vehicle are a modern Orthodox young woman and an Arab man. The ambulance driver looks Hassidic.

This is what I see every week as I wend my way across neighbourhood after neighbourhood, through the bustling Mahane Yehuda market and central bus station, quiet suburbs and historic stone clad streets in the heart of ultra-traditional Hassidic Jerusalem. This is my Jerusalem.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Giving thanks

So now we've had the week of horror at "nothing to eat" because of no kitniot, the other posts about how yom tov is "too much food" and today the endless complaints about rain in the spring, and yes, I get that it's fun to complain, but if I may be pardoned a rant of my own a few days before Yom Hashoah.

Barukh Hashem we have matza and wine and fresh fruits and veg and eggs and meat and fish for those who eat them and nuts and quinoa for those who don't. We are free to openly celebrate Pesah and have access to enough food that we and our families have the choice of what and how much to serve, safe in the knowledge that no one will either arrive or leave the yom tov meal starving. We have choices and bounty that even pre-Shoah Jews in comfortable communities would be in awe of.

Even in our days of comparitive comfort though there are families who cannot afford enough food for Pesah, and Barukh Hashem we live in communities where people donate and contribute and volunteer to help those who need it and invite those with nowhere to go.

It's true, the last few days in Israel have been unseasonally cold and wet, but please remember that every bit of rain is a brakhah that sustains life in this arid region. We are not so rich in water that we can complain about an extra "windfall" of rain so late in the season, especially after so many years of drought. And it isn't as if we didn't have plenty of days of sun to enjoy the beautiful Israeli spring before the weekend's cloudburst.

I'm not saying one can never complain (I would appear to be complaining right now) but please people, some perspective, some hakarat hatov.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


OK, some Israeli election facts for folks abroad who asked:

25 parties competing

120 seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament)

Threshold required to enter the Knesset 3.25% of the vote

The third largest party in the Knesset is now Arab (United Arab List) 

This Knesset has the highest number of Arab MKs of any Knesset. The new Knesset also has more women MKs than ever.

Head of the Central Election Committee: Supreme Court Justice Salim Jubran

When the official tally is in the president (whose position is mostly that of ceremonial head of state) will give the head of the party he considers most likely to be able to form a majority government of at least 61 Knesset members the opportunity to create a coalition. If they cannot do so in the allotted time the president can suggest the head of another party to try.

As for why Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu won?

I think many Israelis consider him a relatively safe pair of hands. Even if he isn't their favourite person he seems to be able to keep the Israeli ship on an even keel, negotiate the perilous region reasonably well. Not that he isn't without his mistakes, misteps and miscomments. Israelis are wary of experiments though, burned by the Oslo peace talks which erupted into the bloody Oslo intifada, waves of terrorism and the poorly handled Second Lebanon War during the government of Ehud Olmert (in which Tzipi Livni was also foreign minister). 

Netanyahu proved himself capable but cautious during last summer's conflict with Gaza. He did not rush in to military action except as a last resort when there were no other options and Israel had to act in self-defense. He kept a realistic view of what the aims of that war should be, he did not shoot his mouth off with bombastic statements, focusing on getting the job done and protecting Israelis from Hamas rockets and terror. No one is under any illusions that he is perfect, but so far his has done a reasonable job.

One other reason I think people voted Bibi. Tzipi Livni has been in charge of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in the outgoing Netanyahu government. Despite her willingness for compromise there was no deal to be had. Obama's pressuring of one side, ie Israel helped to entrench Abbas' view that he could dig in and reject Livni's offers because time was on his side and more could be squeezed out of the Israeli negotiating team. 

The outgoing Netanyahu led government released large numbers of Palestinian terrorists convicted for violent offences, including multiple murders, took the groundbreaking measure (for a Likud led government) of freezing construction over the Green Line, including the (for a Likud led govt) unheard of step of freezing construction in Jerusalem itself. Livni's negotiating team did all it could to go the extra mile. Yet the end result was complete rejection on the part of Abbas and more unilateral moves on his part to fight Israel on the international stage with BDS, the Hague and more. This is the background to Bibi's comments about 2 state solution and this is why many Israelis felt that Bibi and Livni had done their best but there was no deal to be had, so the best option was electing a "manager", someone like Bibi who would make the best of maintaining the "status quo" as it is.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Jerusalem's everyday kindness

Today in Jerusalem riding a very slow bus through Shivtei Yisrael/Haneviim through to the centre of town had plenty of time for people watching:

1) Bus couldn't pull in to the stop due to parked cars, older Hareidi man was getting off the bus and noticed a frail elderly lady having trouble walking from the bus shelter to the bus, he stretched out his hand, offered her physical support and let her lean on him to get off the curb and up on to the bus and into a seat.

2) Heavily pregnant lady was having trouble getting on the bus with her heavy bags. Young Hassidic guy walked up to her and lifted her bags on to the bus, took them to his seat near the front and offered her his seat while he moved to the back of the bus.
3) Pair of tourists dressed in skimpy vests and tight jeans buying falafel at a kiosk, Hareidi man behind the counter serving them with a smile and good humour.
4) Man in a large knitted kipa, peyot and beard guiding a blind Arab man on to the bus.
5) Young Hassidic couple walking in the street, she in pink blouse and headscarf and light grey skirt, their similarly attired young daughter between them each holding one of her hands and swinging her while the three of them walking down the street laughing and chatting together.

Every time I go in to Jerusalem I see scenes like this and I feel like dropping a note to the world, not because the problems of this city aren't just as real, but to remind folks, especially those outside of Jerusalem and Israel that this is also part of the reality of life here, it is far from just modesty signs and disputes and tensions. Gmilut hassadim, loving kindness to one's fellow human being, is still very much alive and part and parcel of everyday life and coexistence in the city and that is what gives me hope for our nation, our future and the Middle East.

Alone in this crazy, combustable region of the world Jerusalem still manages to keep Isaiah's vision of peace and brotherly love real and tangible. Not through great projects and initiatives and politics (though there are many worthy individual engaged in such work), but through the simple practicality of throwing so many different people together in a patchwork city and creating a situation where they have to mix and mingle and cooperate in order to keep their city functioning, in order to live, and through the simple act of everyday living even the most polarised ideological foes have to experience the humanity of the other. I am not so naive as to believe that this will bring real peace tomorrow, but I do know that it is a great deal closer to realising that dream than just about any other city in the Middle East.