Friday, September 20, 2002

Allenby Street robbed

Thursday, September 19, 2002

It's a warm autumn day just before the Sukkot holiday and you've gone to Tel Aviv to run some errands. You're walking along a tree lined boulevard with a mix of stores from the ultra-hip to those that look like they haven't been renovated for decades. Here and there stationers and roadside vendors have tables piled with gaudy sukkah decorations and Rosh Hashanah cards (they're still selling them even though it's two weeks since New Year's.)

As always it's crowded with shoppers, including many old time Tel Avivians, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and a smattering of Asian and east European foreign workers. There is an atmosphere of routine pre-holiday bustle; people jostle past you with baskets full of festive gifts, sukkah decorations and groceries. Workers on lunch break linger at the neighbourhood eateries.

The air is laden with pollution from the heavy traffic. A continuous stream of buses, taxis and private cars clogs the road. A number 4 bus pulls into your stop, an Arab gets on and starts making his way to a seat. Suddenly there is a huge explosion and all hell breaks loose. The busy shopping street has turned into a scene from a horror movie.

Allenby Street is one of the few areas of Tel Aviv I know reasonably well. I've prayed at the Great Synagogue there on several occasions. On my first visit to Tel Aviv, when I was 10 years old, my mother and I spent a lot of time browsing its many shops, soaking up the authentic atmosphere of old Tel Aviv. She told me stories of her first visit to the area when she was in her teens, and we looked to see if there were any shops or buildings that had been there in the mid-1950s.

We stopped in one of those jewellery stores near Tel Aviv's Great Synagogue and Mum bought me a beautiful, simple little gold "Hai" (life) pendant, the letters filled in with blue enamel - my first ever item of gold jewellery. I still wear it. For herself she bought an unusual silver pendant. At first glance it looks like a swirling flame, and then you notice that it's actually stylised Hebrew letters spelling out the word "shalom" - peace.

Peace and life, two things that Allenby was robbed of today.

I was doing my holiday shopping in Jerusalem when the bus was blown up in Tel Aviv. I finished loading the Sukkot groceries into the car and turned on the radio, catching the tail end of a report: "wounded are just being evacuated, the street remains closed, people are asked to stay away from the Great Synagogue..." It seemed to take forever for them to mention exactly what had happened and where.

As the reports continued coming in I found myself busy with the mental arithmetic of Israeli casualties. How many Israeli dead since Rosh Hashanah 5761 two years ago? With another five murdered today I think that makes it 620. "Like the seeds of a pomegranate," DH responded wryly. I hadn't realised that I'd spoken aloud.

Like the seeds of a pomegranate. The pomegranate is a classical Jewish symbol of blessing, beauty and plenty. It is a fruit that is almost more seed than pulp, eaten on Rosh Hashanah to represent our hope that in the new year we will be blessed like the many seeds of the pomegranate. Tradition says that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate, reminding us that God gave the Jewish people 613 commandments to live by. Whatever the number the seeds are too many to count; that's what we wish of our blessings, not our tragedies.

By this afternoon Allenby was back to normal. Only four hours after the bombing, undamaged shops had reopened and bus service had resumed. The fire department had hosed down the street and the only physical evidence of today's carnage were a few boarded up windows and myriad nuts and bolts from the bomb which were scattered throughout the street by the blast.

At a nearby booksellers they were already repairing the shop window blasted to smithereens. Amir, the owner, showed the pile of nuts and bolts which had rained down on the store, creating bullet like holes in the wooden doorframe and merchandise. On a children's book display rack, a Hebrew edition of "The Little Match Seller" had every page pierced by a small wingnut.

Local shopkeeper Tzvi Rabinovitz interviewed on Channel 2, described calmly and quietly how he had stood in his electrical goods store by the Great Synagogue and seen the bus explode, and the passengers jumping out of shattered windows. He had walked down to the nearby crossroads to stop the traffic from entering the scene of the blast. Three hours later he went back to his shop and resumed business as usual as though nothing had happened. "This is our country," he declared, "and we aren't going anywhere. This is our response, to get on with our lives."

Two days before Sukkot there are so many preparations to complete that we have no time to stop. Around us in Jerusalem festive preparations continued. Shoppers were browsing stalls selling tinsel chains, plastic fruit, festive posters and portraits of famous rabbis. Municipal workers were putting up flags. Others had piled up palm leaves from the city's trees for residents to use for the traditional sukkah roofs.

At a local DIY centre tonight people were busy with last minute holiday purchases. In the electronics section by the checkouts a bank of televisions was tuned into the evening news, shoppers looking on with horror at the painful scenes from Tel Aviv. Many strictly religious Jews don't have televisions in their homes and they stood glued to the sets, seeing the day's events for the first time.

Outside they were selling a selection of ready made sukkot. Nearby a makeshift market had stalls offering arba minim, the four species of plant used in the holiday services. People crowded under the spotlights, carefully inspecting each item, checking each etrog (citron fruit) for possible defects, making sure that the lulavim (palm branches) were straight, ensuring that the leaves on the hadasim (myrtle) looked right and that the aravot (willow) were not wilted.

All afternoon there has been banging and sawing from the apartment upstairs as our neighbours work on their sukkah. I've been cutting back the plants on our balcony so that we can put up ours this evening.

Wishing you all hag sameah.

Monday, September 16, 2002

Yom Kippur Eve

Erev Yom Kippur
(Day of Atonement Eve)
Sunday, September 15, 2002

For several weeks now our apartment has reverberated to the awe inspiring melodies of Yom Kippur morning prayers. DH will be the shaliah tzibbur for Shaharit (leading the congregation in services) this year and he has been practicing intently. It is an ideal way to prepare for the day itself, the solemn and daunting prayers focusing the mind on repentance and atonement.

I've noticed that foreign guidebooks advise visitors to Israel to avoid the High Holiday season like the plague. There will be nothing to do, they explain, and everything is closed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Quite simply, they think it's boring.

On the contrary, I recommend that visitors come this time of year. To understand what it means to be living in the world's only Jewish country, I suggest coming to see what it's like on the holiest days of the Jewish year.

The culture of these days permeates Israeli society. The supermarkets are filled with all manner of honey for Rosh Hashanah, and shoe shops do brisk sales in non-leather footwear just before Yom Kippur. Every Israeli from the simplest shop clerk to the most learned rabbi to the most secular journalist wishes one another "gmar hatima tova", may you have a good inscription, referring to the tradition that on Yom Kippur God seals our fates for the coming year.

I've lost count of how many times I've heard the haunting "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer played on the radio in recent weeks, not on religious programmes but during regular shows on popular stations. The prayer, about man's frailty passing before God in judgement, is one of the key points in the High Holiday prayer service.

They play it on the radio because it is part of our culture, something that so many Israelis relate to. "I can't tell you how many listeners tell me they look forward all year to hearing it," commented a broadcaster last night. It touches something deep in the Israeli soul, be it the spur to repentance or childhood memories of synagogue on Yom Kippur.

During the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Israeli radio has had a late night forgiveness slot where people can phone in and ask forgiveness from those they've hurt during the year. In general, radio and television stations have been run programmes about the seasonal themes of introspection and repentance, about the meaning of the High Holidays and the direction of Israeli society.

The great majority of Jewish Israelis fast on Yom Kippur, even those who don't necessarily go to synagogue or engage in any religious activity. As every year, the media interview doctors on how to fast well. This year they are forecasting a heat wave for Yom Kippur, so there were additional questions on how to take precautions against heatstroke, what to do if someone feels ill and the like.

Yom Kippur, more than any other day in Israel, is a national holy day. The entire country shuts down: every business, every place of entertainment, everything. No one drives their cars. You could walk down the middle of a major highway and the only danger would come from a few kids on bicycles - for secular children the lack of traffic has turned Yom Kippur into national bicycle day.

And now there are only a few hours to go before the Day of Atonement is upon is in all its majesty and awe. Businesses and shops closed hours ago. The streets are already quiet as people busy themselves with last minute preparations or shelter from the oppressive heat outdoors. Our building is filled with the mouth watering smells of cooking as we and our neighbours prepare the final meal before the fast. Freshly laundered white holiday clothes hang ready to be worn tonight, the mahzorim (prayer books) are ready by the door.

Last night, the last chance for midnight slihot, forgiveness prayers, before Yom Kippur, the Kotel (Western Wall) was flooded with tens of thousands of worshippers. The rabbi of the Kotel reported that people came in record numbers. And it was not only the traditional religious who came. There were large numbers of secular Israelis among the throng, people who came because the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people, and on the eve of the holiest day of the Jewish Year they also wanted to be part of the last mass prayer service before the great day itself.

There is a Jewish belief in the power of communal prayers, in the power of large numbers of the nation of Israel coming together in prayer and appealing for God's mercy. May the sincerity of the crowds of Jews from all sectors of society, coming together in the heart of Jerusalem have the strength to banish all evil decrees for the coming year.

May we all be inscribed for health, happiness and peace.

Gmar hatima tova.

Thursday, September 12, 2002

America Commemorates

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

By coincidence this afternoon at 4pm Israel time, 9am New York time, I was on a bus, just as I was at the same time last year on September 11. Last year I sat dazed listening to the news on the bus radio, not fully comprehending what had happened. This year the bus passengers grew quiet as the radio relayed the memorial ceremony from Ground Zero.

In Jerusalem an official memorial ceremony was held in the presence of Israeli president Moshe Katzav and US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer. The cabinet held a special memorial session at the Knesset.

All day the news programmes have been devoted to the subject, with regular programming interrupted for live link-ups with memorials in the US. Related songs have been played on the radio, including several of the recent American ballads written for the occasion.

In Tel Aviv an Israeli orchestra commemorated the attacks by performing Mozart's Requiem. An exhibition of photos from the New York site opened today at Jerusalem's Israel Museum.

More than any other free nation, we, who have been battered and bruised by decades of terrorism, understand how America feels. We know exactly what President Bush meant when he talked of men, women and children murdered simply because they were American. How many Jews and Israelis have been murdered simply because they were Jews or Israelis? We have been in that dark, terrifying place so often, especially in the last two years. We have so many bereaved parents, so many orphaned children.

Watching the solemn dignity of the American memorial ceremonies, we are reminded of our own. The recitation of names, the tolling of the bell like the sounding of the memorial sirens here. A people dignified and tearful, like our own. The same quiet determination is common to both, agonising sadness mixed with a stubborn resolve to rebuild our lives and defeat the evil forces working to destroy our freedom.

We extend our sympathy and solidarity to the American people on this memorial day.

Saturday, September 07, 2002

New Year in Song

Friday, September 6, 2002
Rosh Hashana Eve 5763

One of the things I love about Erev Yom Tov (the eve of a festival) in Israel is that they often play lots of my favourite old Israeli songs on the radio.

This morning I was treated to two popular tunes one after the other, both by Israel's number one songwriter Naomi Shemer, Al Kol Eleh (For Everything) and Hakol Patuah (Everything's Open). Both songs bring back wonderful personal memories for me, but the words of both songs have also been going through my head a great deal recently.

I first heard Al Kol Eleh as a little girl sometime in the early eighties. If I remember correctly, it was one of Naomi Shemer's first performances of the song. I vividly remember being in awe of the huge concert hall, the lights, the wood, the mass of people, and on the huge stage in front a little woman and a very big piano.

I was too young to follow all the words, captivated more by the soothing, gentle melody and the simple first lines of the chorus (my loose translation): "My good God, please watch over all these for me: the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet." As a little girl I wondered about that. I could understand the honey and the sweet, but why ask God to look after the sting and the bitterness as well?

It is only years later that the words have truly begun to speak to me in their entirety. They have become an expression of the most basic of prayers, especially for a Jew living in Israel today. The wish to just live life with all its ups and downs, the bitter with the sweet, the honey with the sting, the normal trials of normal people. In the last two years, with the fragility of existence an everyday concern, the prayer the song expresses has become such a deep yearning that it is almost a motto for the hopes and dreams of the Israeli people.

In 1994, during the first year of Oslo, Hakol Patuah became a big hit in Israel. It is a jaunty, upbeat song, and yet with all the apparent liveliness there is also a bittersweet undertone in the chorus: "Everything is still open, it isn't too late; the mood will improve tomorrow; it's conceivable, it's possible, so long as we keep on singing."

It was released as we were going through the first wave of terror which followed the start of the Oslo process. For me this was also the year I was dating my husband; the song came out around the time he proposed. It quickly became our song, our hope for a better Israel in which to set up our new home.

It felt like all the possibilities were open, not just for us, but for Israel in general. There was an economic boom underway, Jews were still flooding in from behind the recently opened "Iron Curtain", new diplomatic ties were being forged and there had been several rainy winters. Who knew what this new Oslo world would bring or how this "new Middle East" would develop? There seemed to be so many options and so much hope for a brighter future.

Today, even as things look bleak, there is again something of that hope, the feeling that in some way the tide has turned. Where last year it felt as though our future was fated to be forever terrorised, this New Year's there is the glimmer that we can truly fight it and win. All the possibilities are still open. It will probably still be a long struggle, and God forbid we may yet suffer terrorism, but as long as we keep our spirits up, as long as we remain determined to live and to fight for our right to live, there is every chance that we will know better times.

Our prayer for the new year, to paraphrase the beautiful words of Naomi Shemer, is that God "not uproot what has been planted," that He watch over "the fruit that has yet to ripen and that has been gathered," that He protect us "from anguish, from fear and from war". And, most important, may we never give up hope.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year.

Shana Tova.