Monday, June 30, 2014

Premature Harvest

When I was a child there was a song that invariably made my mother cry, "Asif" (Harvest), a poem hauntingly set to music by Naomi Shemer. Though written as a eulogy to a young woman killed in a car crash, for my mother its evocative depiction of loss at the end of the Hebrew month of Tishrei would forever mark it as a song about the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

For me, many years later, it became a song I associated with my mother's death in late summer, the mostly desolate Israeli August landscape perfectly mirroring how I felt. My mother was by no means young any more, but her life was certainly cut short just as she seemed to be blossoming and thriving, standing on the cusp of a new phase of her life that offered so much promise.

(words: Itamar Porat, melody: Naomi Shemer)

Gather the deeds
The words and the symbols
Like a harvest too heavy to bear

Gather the blossoms
That ripened into memories
Of summer prematurely passed

Gather all the images of her lovely face
Like the fruit and the grain
The earth is grey beneath the stubble
And has nothing left to give you

And there will no longer be a stalk dreaming of its grain
And no more vows nor prohibitions
Only the promise of the wind that the rain at its appointed time
Will restore the dust at the end of Tishrei
(my rough translation)

Ten years ago Naomi Shemer herself passed away, also no longer young, but certainly not that old by modern standards, she, like my mother, cut down by illness. Eerily enough she had fortold her own death, penning a song about dying in the Hebrew month of Tammuz, the month in which she was also born:

It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz
Just when the peaches are plentiful
When all the fruit is laughing in its basket
And upon your summer and your harvest, hoorays have fallen.
It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz
But in the middle of Tammuz I shall die
Towards the orphaned fruit-gardens
Hooray after hooray will surely fall
And upon your summer - and your harvest - and upon all -
It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz.

(excerpted from Naomi Shemer, "Emtza HaTammuz", 1979 - my rough translation)

These were the words that jumped into my mind tonight as I heard the heartrending news about the three abducted Israeli teens, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil'ad Shaar, 16 and Naftali Frenkel, 16, murdered in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists.

When a mature adult like my mother or Naomi Shemer passes away these words can offer comfort, a life well lived, a life that while cut short was long enough, full enough, to be celebrated. In the context of these teens so brutally slain by the hands of men they only serve to emphasise just how much was lost.

Only last night tens of thousands gathered in Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square to pray for the boys' safety and show solidarity with their families. In Naftali Frenkel's hometown of Nof Ayalon the fences and public notice boards are still adorned with a confusing mix of banners, some praying for the safe return of the missing boys, others announcing summer camps and special events celebrating the beginning of summer.

This should be one of the most joyous seasons for your average Israeli teen. Today was the last day of the school year in many Israeli schools. For weeks children have been excitedly counting down to summer vacation, enjoying nature's sweet summer treats that fill the markets this time of year, celebrating with end of years plays and parties.

In neighbouring Modi'in this evening I passed teens decked out in formalwear en route to end of year proms.

In the fields around Nof Ayalon the tall cheery wheat and grasses have been harvested, leaving behind stubble.

In my mind's eye I see three stalks cut down before their prime.

אסיף / איתמר פרת

אסוף את המעשים
את המילים והאותות
כמו יבול ברכה כבד משאת.

אסוף את הפריחה
אשר גמלה לזיכרונות
של קיץ שחלף בטרם עת.

אסוף את כל מראות פניה היפים
כמו את הפרי ואת הבר.
האדמה היא אפורה מתחת לשלפים
ואין לה עוד לתת לך דבר.

ואין יותר גבעול חולם על שיבולתו
ואין יותר נדרי ואסרי
רק הבטחת הרוח כי הגשם בעיתו
עוד יחונן את עפרה בתום תשרי.

Breaking it to the children

In between the horror and the pain felt by an entire nation tonight the parents amongst us, especially the religious parents amongst us, are left wondering how on earth we tell our kids, many of whom were already in bed by the time the news broke.

It's not that we aren't used to them learning about the unpleasant things in life. They already have drills about what to do if and when they hear the air raid sirens, they know to watch out for suspicious packages which could be bombs, and from the youngest ages local schools try to delicately and age appropriately teach about the Holocaust and how to solemnly observe Memorial Day. This is afterall a country that averages some kind of war every few years and where children know that one day they will likely be called upon to defend their country from neighbours intent on our destruction.

So our kids know that bad things happen, they know there is evil in the world. I'm not trying to say that we or they have a morbid fascination with these unpleasant facts, rather that we are a practical people, and practicality dictates that it's better that kids know at least in the broadest, most general terms, what's out there.

No the hideously heartaching problem for every parent is how to explain that despite the fervent daily prayers, the mass vigils at holy places, the unity, the Psalms, the hallah baking, despite everything, Gil'ad, Naftali and Eyal haven't been found alive, that they were murdered, probably soon after they were abducted.

It isn't the same as telling children the abstract idea that bad things do happen to good people, or struggling with the question of where God was in the Holocaust, or how it can be that we still don't have peace. This is realtime, now, immediate, visceral in a way that the bigger picture questions are not.

Everything narrows down to our children in their schools and youth groups and synagogues and homes spending the last 18 days desperately hoping and praying for good news. And now we have to tell them those prayers were not answered.

Some will say it's a wake-up call for repentance. Some will say we should take the lessons of unity and increased piety and make it those more a part of our day to day lives even when there is no emergency. Some will say it's a mercy they were probably killed soon after the abduction and so suffered less than they might have. So many people and so many theories.

There is no prophecy today though, none of us truly know why, we have no real answers, we are just as lost as they are when it comes to understanding why God allowed this to happen. God has His reasons, and it's OK for us to feel sad and angry, to wonder, to cry.

All we can do is hug our children tight and tell them how much we love them. Each person has his or her appointed time and we are not privy to the whys and whens, but it's up to us to use our time well, to fill our lives with love and hope for a better world, to do what we can do for tikkun olam. What we do know is that Abba and Ima love them, just like the boys' Abbas and Ima's love them, always, and forever. We will smile for our kids and hug them tight, and be strong for them, maybe shed a little tear, even if inside we're breaking and shaking from the sheer number of questions hanging in the air, the heavy burden of faith.

And if this is how we, who never actually knew the boys feel, how can we even imagine what Eyal, Gil'ad and Naftali's parents feel?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Syria's neighbour

As Israelis worry for the safety of the three teens abducted in Gush Etzion, the ongoing conflict to our north claimed more Israeli victims on the Golan Heights. Syrian forces (it's not clear if they were pro-Assad or rebels) fired over the border into Israel, scoring a direct hit on an Israeli civilan vehicle, killing 13 year-old Mohamed Keraka and seriously wounding his father and another man, all from the Galilee village of Arabeh.

Summer break is just beginning and Mohamed was excited to accompany his father to work, with the promise of a visit to a Golan nature site and swimming in a freshwater pool later in the day. Their home village is no stranger to tragedy, two young children were killed there after a direct hit by a Hizballah rocket during the 2006 Lebanon War.

Israelis are not used to thinking of the border with Syria as risky though. For decades is has for the most part been quiet, the armistice following the 1973 war holding steady. The Golan has developed a thriving tourism industry, popular with Israelis of all religions and ethnicities.

For all that Israel has made a point of warning Syria's warring factions to maintain that quiet, the conflict has gradually been creeping closer, battles between government forces and Jihadi rebels raging in towns such as Kuneitra, right on the border with Israel.

The main impact in Israel has been a stready stream of Syrians injured in the fighting making their way to Israel for treatment in hospitals across northern Israel. So many Syrians have sought medical aid that the Israel army has established a field hospital near the border. Israeli hospitals in the Galilee have been overwhelmed by the extent and complexity of the serious war wounds they are seeing, far more than they have been used to even during the Lebanon wars. Children and other civilians with horrorific shrapnel damage, amputees, multiple gunshot wounds and burns.

Syrian refugees have established encampments hugging the border with Israel in the hope that Syrian forces and rebels alike will think twice before attacking so close to the sensitive Israeli border. As with all Syria's neighbours, there has been occasional "spillover" into Israel, stray shells and mortars, a handful of Israeli casualties, brush fires and other damage. The Israeli military has done its utmost to ensure that Syrian forces understand that Israel will respond swiftly to any attacks on Israel, whether accidental or intentional, and for the most part that message seems to have been heeded. Until today. Today's incident it would seem was an intentional targetting of Israelis by Syrian forces, which Syrian forces remains to be seen.

Despite all this, for the most part the situation has been calm enough that it seems as though all the headlines about the ISIS and Al-Nusra Front aren't happening right in our neighbourhood, in some cases just over our border. The fact is though that most of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights is now in the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliated Jihadi rebels. The latest incarnation of the Afghanistan bloodbath is on our doorstep.

We pray that today wasn't a harbinger of a possible future escalation, but with the chaos and terror engulfing ever more of our region, Israelis are feeling increasingly tense about what the future may hold for our neighbours. Twenty years ago Shimon Peres spoke enthusiastically of the tangible chance of creating a New Middle East. Looking around the Middle East today it would seem that his utopian dream has turned in to a nightmare.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Light Unto the Nations

It was extra busy in Jerusalem's Old City this evening. First thousands of Jews packed into the Western Wall plaza, filling it to capacity in a solemn prayer vigil for the three Israeli teenagers kidnapped last Thursday by Palestinian terrorists.

About an hour later thousands more people began streaming into the Old City for the annual Light Show spectacular, in which the historic walls become a canvas for dazzling light installations, a glorious melding of art, modern technology and this city's ancient beauty.

Many of the displays drew inspiration from Jerusalem's rich history, taking motifs from the cultures who've left their mark upon her: Jews, Byzantine, Crusader and Armenian Christians, Arab, Persian and Ottoman Muslims. A breathtaking projection on the Damascus Gate painted the walls with designs inspired by all of these, a great cheer going up from the Arab youth congregating by the steps when an image of the Dome of the Rock in all its glory illuminated the historic site.

As always the Light Festival brings together so many diverse populations purely for the pleasure of enjoying the sights: Muslim families in chic hijabs and jilbabs, Greek Orthodox clergy, Jews of every denomination, persuasion and dress code, Christian pilgrims pausing in the alleys for impromptu songs of praise, Breslev Hassidim breaking into ecstatic dance, local Armenian Christians and tourists from around the globe. Everywhere you are surrounded by a babble of languages, everyone marvelling in delight at the wonders created by the lights.

It's part of what I love about walking through the heart of Jerusalem, the optimism this casual co-existence provides, people who are ideological enemies, people who believe in opposite ideas, and yet on a day to day basis find a way to get along, not just in the hospitals and market places where common need unites them, but also for entertainment, to stroll shoulder to shoulder amongst the crowds enjoying an evening out. I don't kid myself that a beautiful Light Show will bring peace to the Middle East, but it feels like glimpse of what this region could be.

Tonight though I found myself looking around me and wondering whether the Arab families walking besides me were also thinking about the fate of those three Jewish teenagers kidnapped Thursday night. Earlier today we saw pictures of Palestinian women celebrating the kidnapping with sweets, were any of these elderly traditionally dressed Arab women also delighting in the kidnapping of three defenceless boys?

From my horribly rusty Arabic all I heard was mothers pointing out the colours and shapes of the displays to their children, grandmothers admonishing little ones to stay away from the road and watch out for cars, kids excitingly calling to their parents to show them some new delight.

So was I just being paranoid? And yet, and yet, time and time again we see people who are otherwise decent people and yet support terrorism against civilians. I hate the terrorists who believe that kidnapping teenagers is a just means of advancing their cause. I hate the terrorists too for making me look at my Arab neighbours and wonder what I was wondering tonight, and I suppose in part that is exactly what the terrorists want, to jab a knife through that hope of coexistence, to prevent ordinary people from just finding a way to get along, however imperfectly.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray for the friendship and continued co-existence of her people. Pray for the safe return of our three kidnapped boys, and for the safety of all the decent people of every faith who pray for their safe return.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Land of Milk

Every spring we try to get to the Chai Farm in Mevo Modi'im for some goat milking,goat herding, cheese making and fun.

This is the time of year to see kids (as in baby goats), adorable in their doe eyed cuteness, nursing from their mothers, learning to graze. My daughter will never forget getting to hold a baby goat in her arms, tiny and docile, snuggling up into her embrace. Last year there was a kid who had difficulty nursing from its mother, so the farmer helped the children milk the mother goat, and then my little girl got to hold it in her arms and feed it. It's a delight to come back a year later and see the kid all grown-up.

After a morning goat herding, milking and helping to feed the slightly older kids it was time to get out of the sun, relax in the air conditioning and get down to the business of cheese making. Visits to goat farms have created a (so far) great fondness for goat cheeses in our family. The younger generation are always excited to participate in making goat cheese and today the excitement wasn't just limited to the cheese, they enthusiastically and of their own volition chose to prepare cheeses with zaatar, rosemary, dill, nigella seeds and oregano, which they proudly announced they would be saving as a Shabbat treat for the family because of all the special ingredients.

Still, after all that hard work they were getting mighty hungry, and with perfect timing our hostess produced exquisite cheese platters with a selection that included labane with spring onions, Circassian style cheese, Tom hard cheese with bayleaves, smoked Provolone, salty Bulgarian style cheese and a selection of olives, crackers and veggies. Within minutes my children had demolished the substantial spread, clamouring for more and moving on to the untouched cheeses the children sitting next to them had left on their platter, wondering aloud why those little girls hadn't eaten their cheese, only the crackers and cucumbers. Then they begged me to buy more to take home for Shabbat, in addition to what they had made, and how could I say no? Dairy Shabbat it will be.

Despite the midday sun there was ample shade from the yard's olive, pomegranate, fig and lemon trees, extra lush and beautiful this time of year with the first mini-fruitlets that promise more delicious treats come late summer and autumn. Between the aviaries of tropical birds added colour and a soundtrack, while assorted chickens roamed freely, mother hens herding their wayward posses of impossibly cute chicks. The farm's pet tortoises, large and well fed, were happy for the children to offer them more juicy morsels of leaves or even prickly pear cactus.

It was hard to pry the human kids away, but Shabbat waits for no one and that tasty bag of cheeses needed to get to a fridge. Reluctantly they followed me out the ornate gate, wandered down the rustic country lane and back to the world of concrete and asphalt.