Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lag Ba'Omer Grinch

It's Israeli bonfire season again, time to batten down the hatches, seal the windows and hide indoors until the air clears.

I associate many of our holidays with the smell of burning, but now that I think of it there seem to be many variations of that smell.

Hannukah and Friday night come with the warm, sweet smell of olive oil, mostly odourless as it burns, then pleasantly pungent as the oil burns down and the wick putters out.

Purim in Israel reeks of cordite from the firecrackers. Kind of like the Chinese New Year. Funny they often come out around the same time, I've often wondered if the Israeli firecracker tradition is in someway connected, maybe we get the surplus from the Chinese celebrations.

Pesah eve comes with the whiff of burning bread. Or rather the smell of people trying in vain to get fires going with the remains of their leaven. Hopefully without any plastic packaging, but there is always someone who thinks that will help.

On Yom Ha'atzmaut the whole country smells like a giant grill restaurant. I imagine this must have been what seder night was like at the time of the ancient Temple, a whole nation barbequeing in unison.

Then there is Lag Ba'Omer, holiday of burning, or so it seems. Weeks in advance the children of Israel (note the small c) start gathering wood. And I don't mean firewood, I mean anything that could be considered wood or woodlike, be it packing crates, mdf closet doors or even chipboard and formica old furniture. What's that you say, those things can give of fumes when burnt? Really?

Sad to say that the yearning for kindling of any kind seems to be so keen that some kids will even rip the wooden planks off park benches (in our area many of the benches are metal or stone for this reason) or bits of scaffolding from building sites. 

There just aren't that many spare logs and twigs in these parts where our local trees tend towards puny rather than mighty, and belong to either private individuals or the state.

The aim is to gather the greatest pile of flammable stuff you can and then, on the great night itself (give or take a couple of days) to set it alight into a mighty torch, while you stand around and wonder what to do next. It isn't even as if the nights are usually that chilly this time of year, so it's often uncomfortably warm around the flames. 

It's a curious thing, this juvenile attraction to pyromania. Schools, synagogues and youth groups organise their own bonfires with legally obtained fireworthy lumber, roast potatoes, marshmallows and corn on the cob, maybe a nice singalong too. 

They usually have the good sense to hold their event in the week before Lag Ba'Omer, while the air is still breathable and there are still plenty of open areas uncluttered by competing fires.

As you may have gathered I'm not a big fan of this holiday. Whose brilliant idea was it to set the whole country alight davka at the beginning of the warm dry season, just when the rain has usually come to a halt and there is no way to cleanse the air from all this ash, soot and smoke? 

The pall of Lag Ba'Omer hangs over Israel for days to come, a toxic miasma keeping the elderly, the sick, asthmatic and the allergy prone indoors, and the rest of us wishing we could legally open our emergency gas masks to escape from the noxious air.

Most irksome of all though is that all the stories associated with this holiday, from Rabbi Akiva to Bar Kokhva to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, are largely forgotten in the single minded pursuit of fire. 

I mean come on, why couldn't we have celebrated by eating carobs or remembering the need to be nice to one's fellow human being as per the story of Rabbi Akiva's students? We could have started by not trying to burn down the neighbourhood.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Blue and white forever

No birds have come to our balcony this week.

Not our regular jays and bulbuls, our sometime visitors the blackcaps, great tits, sunbirds and graceful prinias, or our uncommon avian guests the ring-necked parakeets, laughing doves and blackbirds.

The feeders are forlorn, their seeds and fruit waiting in vain.

I think we have scared them away.

It's all my daughter's fault.

Last week at the craft store she used her pocket money to stock up on long strands of Israeli flags and blue and white bunting, declaring "This year we are going to decorate properly for Yom Ha'atzmaut!"

So early Sunday morning found vertically challanged me teetering on a stool and trying to keep the baby from getting tangled in lengths of patriotism as I struggled to bedeck our balcony in honour of the impending holiday.

An hour later and our porch was festooned with fluttering blue and white flapping delightedly in the breeze.

When J finally roused herself she was beside herself with delight.

"All my flags are up Ima!"

"Look how they flap in the wind Ima!"

"The sky even matches our flag Ima!"

And indeed it did. Grand azure expanses dotted liberally with storybook large white fluffy clouds.

"Ima, we finally look Yom Ha'atzmautdig!"

Israeli flags and streamers in the garden below echo our loving decorations, as do most of the balconies and windows in the buildings across the street and on the lamposts all down the main boulevard below us.

I started getting that warm fuzzy feeling.

Suddenly J stopped her enthusiastic outburts and looked perturbed.

"We don't have lights Ima."

"Ima, our neighbours have Stars of David made out of lights!"

" Ima, the house on the corner has blue and white lights all along their railing that flash on and off like the blue is chasing the white or the white is chasing the blue."

"Ima, why don't we have lights?"

I guess there is always next year.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Have a little gratitude

There is a fashion amongst some Jews, here and abroad, to sneer at Yom Ha'atzmaut, to pooh pooh the celebration of this imperfect realisation of their highly idealised image of what the Jewish state should be.

Others accept that there is something to celebrate on Yom Ha'atzmaut, but deride what they see as the crass and populist way it is celebrated, the throngs of Am Yisrael with their barbecues, gaudy coloured lights, Israeli flags, low brow entertainment and pathos-laden songs.

Finally there are the folks, mostly in the diaspora, who are kind of glad that Israel is there, but please don't expect them to get too excited about it. Perish the thought that they should take even a minute or two on Yom Hazikaron to say thank you to the thousands who died so that Israel could live. So that they could be safe in the knowledge that there was a bolt hole for them should things ever get really bad in the diaspora, or if they fancy visiting the Kotel some time.

For crying out loud folks, I know it sounds Pollyanish, but play the glad game, be thankful for what you have. Stop focusing on what you haven't, on what there isn't, on what isn't good enough.

Just because something isn't perfect doesn't mean you can't recognise the good in it, can't thank Hashem for granting us this modern miracle, this privilege to be of a generation that merits to be part of the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland.

Just because a mode of celebration isn't to your taste, or is beneath your taste, doesn't mean you can't appreciate the wonder of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland joyously thronging the streets in their tens of thousands in honour of Israel's birthday.

Open your eyes, get some perspective, look. Just look. Roughly seventy years after Hitler decreed our people as fit only for extinction, murdered a third of our nation and left the Jewish world in tatters, a mere handful of decades after we reached the brink of total destruction, and look at the vibrancy, the creativity, the enthusiasm for life that are at the core of this phoenix that is the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in Israel.

How can you see that and not see a reason to dance in the streets? How can you see the only place in the world with a growing Jewish population, a growing young Jewish population, and not rejoice in this victory over Hitler? How can you see the thousands of dedicated young men and women who pledge their lives to protecting our people and not feel gratitude? How can you look the bereaved parents in the eye and tell them their child's sacrifice wasn't good enough for you?

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The honey and the sting

There wasn't a dry eye in the hall tonight as the short video about Jerusalemite Noam Cohen was screened. Images of a bright eyed lively young man filled the screen but we all knew the inevitable end of the story.

Noam had spent most of his adult life in the murky world of counter-terrorism. In February 1994 one of his Palestinian informants set an ambush for him and Noam was killed. I remember it well, the news stories of this vibrant young man, the eloquence of his family, the visceral feeling of someone so alive being extinguished just like that.

Tonight his sister helped keep his memory alive by addressing tonight's memorial gathering, telling us about her brother, but also about the many young Noams today who bear his name. She reminded us of the many thousands of young religious Israelis who may never have heard of her brother, but who each day honour his legacy by blending a devoutly religious way of life with serving their country and participating in Israel's mainstream culture and workforce, as Noam had. Knowing that so many people had, knowingly or not, drawn inspiration from Noam's brief life was the greatest memorial to him.

Only a few months before Noam Cohen was shot in the line of duty, father and son Moredekhai and Shalom Lapid were murdered in Kiryat Arba, one of several fatal terror attacks in the months after the Oslo Peace accords were announced. I remember that it was around Hannukah time and the deaths of father and son Lapid, a name meaning torch, a symbol of the Hannukah story, is lodged in my memory. Lapid senior was a Soviet Jewish dissident who had made it to Israel and become involved in the settlement movement, one of the pioneers of the renewal of Hebron's Jewish community, his son a brilliant young Torah scholar.

Today two of Mordekhai's grandchildren bear his and his son's names. Their other grandfather, prominent Hebrew linguist Avshalom Kor, spoke movingly of how vividly his two young grandsons remember the relatives they never met, how naming them after the murdered Mordekhai and Shalom has created an almost mystical bond between the generations. Kor recounted how young Mordekhai upon seeing a portrait of his late grandfather pointed and said "Grandpa". His younger brother saw the portrait of Shalom hanging next to it and said simply "me".

It was not an easy evening, too many difficult memories, chilling stories and raw emotion. There were cathartic songs in between, the lyrics from Psalms and the liturgy, and of course, at the end Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem whose central theme is hope and continuity.

This is what Memorial Day is in Israel, something deeply personal, painful and tangible.

As I sat in that auditorium this evening I was reminded of a couple from Florida I met earlier today.

I was hastily finishing up some errands with the kids at the local mall. Near the fountain two large Israeli flags had been placed at either end of a black table where two men were setting up memorial candles in the shape of a Magen David.

At around 17:50 an announcement came over the tannoy announcing that all the shops would be closing early at 18:00 sharp to mark the start of Memorial Day that evening. An elderly man and woman approached me and asked if I could explain to them in English what had been said.

When I translated they looked a little puzzled.

Memorial Day wasn't like Shabbat said the wife, why did the shops have to close?

It was my turn to look puzzled. At first I didn't understand the connection. Then it hit, she thought perhaps there was some religious injunction forbidding work on Memorial Day. I explained that is wasn't anything religious, rather the country shut down out of respect for those who had died, and to make sure that everyone was able to get to the evening's memorial services.

The woman still looked perplexed. But in America Memorial Day is a busy shopping day she said. There are lots of sales. She looked disappointed.

It turned out they were visitors to Israel from Florida. They'd been told that this was a fun time of year to visit because of Israel Independence Day. They were looking forward to the promised festivities, but hadn't bargained for the mourning that comes first in this country, something that just seems like the most natural order of events for Israelis.

I tried to explain again, but they just didn't seem to grasp why there was mourning and only then festivities when in the US July Fourth has no connection to Memorial Day, and in any case, they'd never heard of a whole country shutting down for Memorial Day. It seemed a bit extreme to them.

Is Israel really that unusual in linking the two concepts? I haven't done an academic study of the subject, but it seems so. From an Israeli perspective it seems cliche to even mention it, how we can't free ourselves to celebrate fully on Yom Ha'atzmaut without first remembering the price of that hard won independence by paying our respects to those who paid that price.

The radio is full of sombre soft songs tonight, several penned by the late and sorely missed Naomi Shemer, whose gift it was to so beautifully convey the national mood. "The honey and the sting", she wrote "the bitter and the sweet...protect these things". It might sound trite, but that bittersweetness is I think a very Israeli perspective on life in this difficult neck of the woods. We accept this country with love, both its honey and its sting, Memorial Day and Independence Day, and if you don't take the time to truly experience the former than all the festivities of the latter are hollow.

יהי זכרו ברוך In memory

Tonight is the beginning of Yom Hazikaron, Israel's Memorial Day for all the 22,867 soldiers who fell creating and defending the State of Israel, and for the 2,443 civilians murdered in terrorist attacks.

As the siren sounds tonight at 20:00 and tomorrow morning at 11:00 a grateful nation will remember the friends we have lost, the lives snuffed out, the potential lost and the new lives that will not be created.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the breaved families and to the many tens of thousands injured in both body and mind during the many wars and terror attacks our young country has suffered.

Fourteen years ago Gidon Posner, a highschool classmate, joined the list of the fallen when the helicopter he was aboard collided with another en route to active duty in Lebanon in what is the worst military accident in Israeli history. He was amongst the 73 soldiers and airmen who perished.

I post this news clip in his memory so that others might know even a fraction of the special person he was and the wonderful potential the Jewish people lost with his death. May his memory be blessed.
(video is in a mixture of Hebrew and English)