Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Uri Orbach, may his memory be for a blessing

Today Israel lost one of her finest, children's author, journalist, politician and finally government minister Uri Orbach z"l.

Many leading rabbis, politicians, journalists and public figures have written tributes to this special man, people who knew him well and less well, who worked with him, appeared on tv and radio with him, served in government with him.

I am by no means one of those, I barely knew him personally, but what I did know of him was that every sterling testiment to his goodness you'll read in the press is 1000% true.

Uri Orbach prayed at our local synagogue. He sat a couple of rows behind my husband's seat. A leading public figure but he sat in a regular seat in a middle row pew just like any ordinary synagogue goer, not special honours, no place of privilege. He greeted everyone with the same genuine smile and shabbat shalom.

My oldest child has always loved his books; from kindergarten onwards they were some of the Jewish themed stories she liked to take to synagogue with her. One Friday night Uri Orbach noticed that she was reading a book he had written. Without revealing that he was the author he asked her about the book, whether she liked it, what she liked or didn't like and all with a gentle humour and smile that put the little girl at her ease.

This became a sort of ritual, he'd see her with a book, often one of his, ask her about it, she'd chat a little about the book, he'd wish her shabbat shalom and that was it. He never let on that he was the author of some her books.

Only later did another congregant let alone who the man who liked to talk about books was. And she was thrilled, a real live author of some of her favourite books who prayed in the same synagogue as her.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

We shall overcome

I've heard a lot of people today saying that today's horrific synagogue slaughter is "too much", an attack too far, an act of such barbarity that something will have to change.

The sad thing is that it isn't "too much", we've all "been in this movie before", last time around when there was a surge like this in attacks and Palestinian rantings about "the Jews and Al Aqsa" it got way worse before it got any better and we lost a lot more people. I pray that this time will be different but there is a certain pattern to the insanity here, the way it surges and wanes.

This is not an easy reality to live with, especially as parents to young kids, but painful as it is Israelis have been living and dying with it for decades, most recently during the Oslo intifada years of the early 2000s.

We are a nation suffering collective PTSD, no doubt, but we will find a way to live with it, we always do, whatever they throw at us, however many they kill and hurt, we will hug our kids and grit our teeth and keep going because this is our home and we are the Jewish people and it's never been easy to be a Jew and there is always someone trying to kill us in every generation, בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלתנו והקבה מצילנו מידם

The day breaks, your mind aches

Back in the bad old days of the early 2000s I had nightmares about mornings like this, we had so many of them. Terror bursting in to what should have been the mundane morning routine and turning it blood splattered and broken, Israeli lives once again destroyed by murderers motivated by unfathomable hatred.

It's been feeling a lot like November 2000 lately, Palestinian terror striking down so many Israelis week after week, a new wave of attacks that echo the early violence of what became known as the Second Intifada or the Oslo War.

How I prayed that those days were over. Days whose evil imprint marks the soul of all of us who lived through them. Days when you lost count of just how many terror attacks there had been, could no longer keep track of the places and dates and names because there were just too many and a new part of the daily routine was simply wondering if you or someone you loved would be the next person to be struck down commuting to work or doing the groceries or taking the kids to school.

That old familiar dread returned again with a vengence this morning as I was sorting socks. My husband was standing in the bathroom, reading the news updates on his phone as he brushed his teeth. Suddenly he stopped, gasped, fell silent. I knew it was going to be bad.

Attack on a synagogue during morning prayers.

In the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Har Nof.

I would have felt that too familiar pang of dread on hearing of such an attack anywhere, but Har Nof, Hashem Yishmor, Har Nof, the neighbourhood we once lived in, where we have relatives, friends, former neighbours, acquaintances, so many people, so heartachingly familiar, so many good good people. 

A place of happy memories, of simple kindnesses from neighbours, walks in the woods and being stranded in the snow. A neighbourhood packed with synagogues and yeshivot and hesed organisations and charities, Torah, mitzvot and good deeds. Har Nof.

Har Nof, now a place known in all of Israel as the Jerusalem neighourhood where terrorists ripped in to a group of pious Jews at prayer, wrapped in their tallitot and tefillin as Palestinian murderers attacked them with guns and axes, killing and maiming, soaking the synagogue in Jewish blood.

All morning I had kids to prepare for kindergarten and playgroup, lunch to prepare, chores and projects to do, activities to organise, children to pick up and drop off. Routine to keep my mind from thinking or checking the news or wondering with terror what names I might hear.

This afternoon though lunch had been eaten, kids were busy playing or at youth group, laundry folded, time to check the news, see the photos and choke back the tears.

One of those murdered today was Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg הי"ד the father of a childhood friend from London. Not someone I'd met often, but someone who made an impression on me, a living embodiment of Torah Ve'Avodah, a pious Jew, who made a point of both working for his living and learning Torah regularly. A mensch in every respect. A good person.

My mind refuses to comprehend such a person being taken from this world with such utter barbarism, murdered during morning prayers, wrapped in his tallit and tefillin. May Hashem comfort and care for the family.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Shades of autumn 2000?

There has been a steady trickle in the last couple of years, warnings of an impending next intifada for at least the last year, in some quarters a bit more.but the big trigger to the boiling over in Jerusalem seems to have been the sick revenge killing of an innocent Arab teen, Muhammed Abu Khdeir, by Jews. I'm not saying that something wasn't in the works on the Palestinian side anyway, egged on by Kerry, Obama and Co's chronic Mid East bunglings, but the murder created a wave of popular support on the Palestinian street even in otherwise peaceful and middle class areas like Beit Hanina.

It's over a decade since the last big round of the Oslo intifada, things have been quiet, business has been picking up, construction etc in the Palestinian Authority, a new generation of young people ready to stir things up who were just children during the last round.

Plus there is the Jerusalem light rail which has made the city better connected, as well as creating a very distinct symbol of Israeli sovereignty in Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem.

And then there were all the recent prisoner releases. between the Shalit deal and the "good will" prisoner releases under pressure from Obama and Kerry, hundreds of Palestinian terrorists were released, including convicted murderers and aspiring murderers free again to resume killing Israelis, and that is exactly what many of them are doing, such as the man who today murdered 26 year-old Dalia Lemkus in a mixed car attack and stabbing. Echoes of the first Intifada in the late 80s, escalated by the prisoners released in the Jibril deal.

During the last intifada Israeli security forces put up blocks like this around bus stops in isolated areas in Judea and Samaria because of attacks. Then there were a bunch of attacks and the majorly busy bus stops/hitchhiking post in French Hill, northern Jerusalem, so they barricaded those waiting areas too. Now after all these attacks on the Jerusalem Light Rail, the shiny new light rail stations are next. How long until they have to do this with regular bus stops in Jerusalem or in other major Israeli cities?

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

For better and for worse

The experience of riding a sherut, service taxi minibus, is oddly initimate, ten strangers and a driver in a closed confined space for the duration of what can be quite a long intercity journey.

It isn't just the sitting together in close quarters, but the pervasive custom of not paying when you get on, but rather first taking your seat, then rummaging around in your purse or pockets for the fare and passing it along to the front via the passengers sitting near you, the money going hand to hand until it reaches the driver, then any change coming back the same way.

There's something of a mini-kibbutz atmosphere about the experience, the driver checking where everyone is getting off and whether he can skip parts of the route by common consensus, the passengers asking the driver to drop them off at unofficial stops along the route, the cramped seats that push people close together and unlike a regular big bus if you don't like the radio station the driver is tuned to you can't just move all the way to the back 20 or more rows away.

Like it or not, you're going to have some basic contact with the other passengers. If you take a particular route on a regular basis you are more than likely to get to know, if only at the most cursory level, your driver and fellow travellers, it's just that kind of thing. A bit like Cheers.

This Israeli institution cuts across many of the cultural and social divides, bringing together the spectrum of Israel's diverse demographic cramped together for the duration of the ride.

On my local route to Jerusalem most of the drivers and often quite a few of the passengers are Arabs.

For example last week riding home from Jerusalem our driver was a Christian Arab, his dashboard decorated with silver plaques depicting Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus. His passengers a mix of women in Jewish and Islamic headscarves, soldiers and a couple of formally dressed (by Israeli standards) male commuters. The soldiers dozed, the commuters were glued to their smartphones, the women seemed to be regulars on the route and were soon chatting about kids, work and grocery shopping while the driver hummed along to a music station playing Israeli Middle Eastern style pop and chatted from time to time on his hands free phone.

Or take one of my trips in to Jerusalem around the autumn Jewish festive season which this year coincided in part with the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha. I got on with a couple of my kids near the beginning of the route, greeted the driver and made my way to the back row where we could all sit together.

By the time we were on the highway to Jerusalem the other seven passengers consisted of two Sephardi ultra-Orthodox women in elaborate headscarves, an Indian Hindu foreign worker, a Border Guard policeman who spent the whole journey chatting in Arabic on his mobile phone, a hipsterish secular couple who spent most of the ride canoodling on the double seat in front of me and an elderly lady, her neck adorned with an assortment of goldchains with Jewish charms and amulets. Our driver was a Muslim Arab from Jerusalem.

The ultra-Orthodox women, the elderly lady and the driver were clearly regulars, the women greeting him warmly and wishing him hag sameah (happy holidays) as they entered the vehicle. As we drove along they chatted about family, where each would be for their respective festivals, how work was going, whether we'd finally get a rainy winter.

After a while one of the women took a phone call, another started to doze and the driver turned on the radio to a station playing Middle Eastern style Jewish religious music. He seemed to know much of the playlist, singing along from time to time.

The reason this particular journey stuck in my mind was because I was taking my racing car mad kids in to Jerusalem to watch the Formula One show postponed to the autumn due to the war this summer.

Our sherut minibus dropped us near the Central Bus Station and from there we hopped aboard a tram on the light rail, the destination board flashing up place names in Hebrew, Arabic and English, the compartment filled with a hodge podge of elderly women travelling home from market, tourists, race car enthusiasts and families with kids. Gliding along almost silently save for the distinctive ding ding of the tram's bell, the air was filled with the chatter of passengers, Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, French, Farsi, Yiddish and Amharic.

This is the background against which the recent upswing in terror attacks has been taking place. Terror attacks designed to destroy precisely this fragile status quo which allows life to go on despite all the politics and conflict.

We've had a decade of relative quiet since the last intifada's bus bombings made every Jewish passenger check the Arab passenger next to him for wires protuding from his clothing or bulky jackets in the heat or summer. It made me and many others sick to our stomachs to have to think that way, but with so many Palestinian suicide bombings that was the chilling reality of life.

The recent drive by attacks offer even less warning though, how do you spot a potential terrorist's vehicle until it is speeding towards you at your bus or tram stop? How can you not start to wonder about your Arab bus driver, how well you really know him?

And yet those things go completely counter to the day to day coexistence that despite the tension manages to be the norm, a utopian glimpse of what the Middle East could be, has the potential to be.

Jerusalem Light Rail attacked again in crash and kill terror attack

Two points, because I am being bombarded with people saying the same thing about today's horrific attack, that the response should be to ban Arabs from driving cars in Jerusalem:

1. Plenty of Israeli citizens are Arabs, most of them law abiding and decent people, you can't just ban everyone from driving a car. I regularly travel on local buses where the drivers are Arab citizens of Israel, many Israeli bus and taxi drivers are Arab, as are many of the passengers. Someone charging in to a Light Rail station in Jerusalem, especially that part of Jerusalem, was in fact just as likely to hit Arab passengers as Jews.

2. Why the Light Rail again? Why has it been attacked over and over again in recent months? Many reasons but this is what springs to mind right now, it is an easy target, running through or near many Arab Jerusalem neighbourhoods, so opportunity is certainly a factor. It is also a symbol of the united city and of coexistence, connecting Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods with both the modern city centre and Old City.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Israel treating Syrian wounded

From my cousin, a senior British doctor currently visiting Israel:

"Just had a wonderful afternoon with faculty members of new medical school in Northern Israel. Heard all about the Syrian casualties they've been treating - so far >450, only 5 have died despite often terrible injuries. 17% children. Has cost $10million so far which hospital has borne. Patients left at border for IDF to pick up and transport to Ziv hospital in the Israeli town of Tzfat. Patients often leave with equipment (mostly orthopaedic braces etc) that would usually be returned by Israeli patients but just lost in Syria. All go back. All have grown up thinking Israel evil and Jews drink babies' blood. They find compassion and world class care. Anyone reporting this?"

"The Syrian patients don't talk about it as they get punished for going into enemy territory. Most of them are young men - no one asks if they're fighters and which side. And of course no one reporting in the international press. It's an amazing humanitarian effort - saving limbs, skin etc but also delivering babies (that's generated big debates - the women appear knowing they get good care, the babies have birth certificates saying Syrian born in Israel...), and the children come on their own. All extraordinary. Remember the Syrian border is just 19km from Ziv. Damascus just up the road. This is true heroic good stuff."