Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Ma'ala Ma'ala

We had to run an errand next to the Ramle on Friday to a mason's workshop. We've had some urgent repairs to carry out on our flat, among them replacing a counter top.

Not terribly exciting stuff you might think except that the workshop and office are located at the edge of Ramle's bustling shuk, a warren of old alleys, historic buildings, derelict buildings and a general feeling of Israel as it was 30 or more years ago, as though time has stood still. 

The towns of Ramle and Lod are home to a substantial Indian Jewish community, and Israeli-Indian singer Liora Yitzhak filmed the video clip for her recent single "Ma'ala Ma'ala" at the colourful Ramle-Lod market. Wending our way through the Friday crowds with her Bollywood inspired routines playing in my mind's eye I half expected folks to erupt in song and dance at any moment.

Reaching the workshop we were instead greeted by the most beautiful Yemeni Hebrew singing of prayers for the High Holy Days rising above row after row of neatly stacked slabs of shiny granite and the din of powerful industrial strength fans and tools. On the factory floor, covered in white stone dust from kipa to shoes, stood the chief stone mason, practicing his Yom Kippur davening while cutting counter tops. If he ever records an album I will be first in line to buy it, truly an amazing voice.

Our business concluded he and the sales woman in the office sent us on our way with a plethora of blessings for the New Year, smiles and kisses for our babies and more delightful singing.

Out in the shuk again preparations for the coming holidays were in full swing. I started thinking of Liora Yitzhak's song again, with it's focus on starting afresh, maybe it's the time of year, maybe it's just the out of left field way my mind works, but somehow it always makes me think of the Yom Kippur hymn "Ya'aleh Tahnuneinu", about our prayers ascending to Heaven.

May all our prayers breach the gates of Heaven, may we all be blessed with a year of positive new beginnings, good health and creative energy. Gmar hatima tova. May we all be inscribed in the book of life and all good things.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In thy blood, live

"And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live;" (Ezekiel 16:6)

It's a strange time of year to be in Israel, plumbing the depths of pain and the heights of elation. A few friends asked me today how people here do it. How they can be mourning the loss of thousands of our finest men and women while preparing for tonight's celebration of independence. 

How you can go in to a shop today, grief stricken, emotions churning from the very public mourning all around, but the cashier will wish you "hag sameah", happy holidays, in advance of Independence Day. 

The contrast is jarring, even offensive, and yet it is so natural because the two aren't separate, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut are two sides of the same coin and you cannot have one without the other. 

You can't have the joy of Sukkot without the sombre reflection of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

You can't celebrate our freedom on Pesah without recalling the terrible suffering of our slavery in Egypt. 

You don't have the celebratory joy of a wedding without breaking the glass and remembering the destruction of ancient Jerusalem and the Temple, and the terrible loss of Jewish life and freedom those events led to.

It's a very Jewish perspective of the balance of life and of acknowledging the cost of our freedom and thanking those who sacrificed before allowing ourselves to celebrate that freedom. There is no completely unbridled joy, but by the same token there is no mourning without hope. Even as the biblical prophets describe the horrors about to be inflicted on Israel they speak also of the comfort of the redemption that will come too. 

While it can feel wrenching for someone to be thinking of tomorrow's holiday even as you yourself are in the depths of today's mourning, that is part of the message. Our mourning isn't pointless, our losses were not without meaning.

Religious Jews add something important between Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut, a special prayer service which adds perspective to both. Before eating we say a blessing over our food, before celebrating our independence after centuries of harsh exile we thank God for this miracle of national rennaissance and pray for those who perished in its realisation. 

I often hear my American friends saying "freedom isn't free" and bemoaning the way that they feel their nation fails to acknowledge the price paid for their independence and comfort. 

In Israel it's built in to the culture, not just because we still have a draft, not just because our nation remains threatened by hostile neighbours 68 years after our battle for independence, but because of this link between our Memorial Day and Independence Day. Every schoolchild knows that you don't celebrate Israel's birthday without first honouring and thanking those who sacrifice to keep us safe.

It's all one package. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Never Forget

My grandmother had an album where she kept photos sent to her and her aunt by her sisters'-in-law in what was then Poland (today Ukraine). These are some of the 60 members of my grandparents' family who were murdered by the Nazis - men, women, children and babies. Some murdered in the forest by local Nazi sympathisers, others in the Belzac death camp.

 We know what happened to them because another cousin managed to survive the war by pretending to be a Polish Catholic. She spoke fluent Polish, wore a cross, attended church regularly, memorised Catholic prayers and was able to pass as a Polish Catholic woman. Unable to rescue any other family members she witnessed their fate, including the murder of her own husband and baby.

They are ordinary people taking ordinary family photos with no idea that this would be all that remained of them because they themselves would be turned to ash and dust by strangers who hated them simply because they were Jews.

They were not "collateral damage", their deaths were not an accident of war or plague or natural disaster or famine but cold calculated murder by the Nazis and their allies who devoted huge resources from their formidable war machine to the erradication of these peaceful civilians simply because they were Jews.

The mind cannot fathom the meaning of 6 million human beings let alone the mass murder of 6 million human beings. It doesn't have to though. Look at these children and parents, these are the faces of the 6 million, the silent testimony to the evils some of the most technologically advanced and supposedly civilised nations on Earth carried out against some of the most productive, hard working, learned and peaceful people on Earth. .

These are the family I will never know, the great-aunts and uncles and cousins who exist only as photos because they were exterminated by Hitler's henchmen. The children who are forever children, reminding us of the children they never bore, the generations of cousins who never were, the gaping hole in our family.

They have no voices, we must be their voices, voices which refuse to let the world forget or twist the memory of the Holocaust.

If you hear people question, if you hear Holocaust deniers or belittlers, supposed academics who question whether it really happened, don't be silent. Keep these photos in your mind, remember these faces of those murdered in the Holocaust, remember them and their suffering, their horrific deaths.

Etch the warning in to your soul - even the most civilised, rational and scientific men and woman are capable of the most heinous crimes against their fellow humans. Do not let others say "it could not happen today", "it could not happen here". Never forget so that it may never happen again.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

After you! No after you!

Five random immigrants to Israel meet at a bus stop: an older Ethiopian lady with several bags of heavy shopping, an immaculate elderly Argentinian couple with matching his n hers walking sticks, a middle aged Briton with a massive sack of toys and a young Indian man with what looks like a month's supply of eggs.

The bench at the bus stop only seats three.
Cue ten minutes of "after you" standoff as all five try to insist the others must take the seats, even though not everyone even speaks Hebrew well enough to argue with more than hand gestures.

Resolution: the three women sit, but they budge up so that the elderly Argentinian can sort of squeeze in with his wife with his tush half off the seat while the Indian stands nearby and the two men exchange complements about each others' impressive handlebar mustaches in a mix of broken Hebrew and sign language.
Would have made an amazing Gashashim or Hamishiya Hakamerit skit.*

* veteran Israeli comedy groups

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Overheard in the waiting room

At the doctor's office today in the waiting room there was an adorable elderly Yemeni couple sitting together. She wore amazing silver filigree jewellery and a colourful headkerchief with a simple long black dress. He had traditional style peyot. He had his arm around her and she had her head resting on his shoulder. So so sweet, but I didn't want to intrude and ask if I could take their photo, much as would have loved to, would have made a beautiful portrait.

Everything was delayed because the doctor had been called out on an emergency, and things could have turned ugly had it not been for the good humour of the secretaries and patients combined even as the waiting room got more and more crowded as the delay continued for several hours.

Entertainment was provided by the automated checking-in system which decided to give certain people several numbers in a row, spitting out paper slips with numbers on them so fast that I was looking around the candid camera.

The lady who got the numbers jackpot turned to me with a smile, her hands full with wads of paper and said "See, it's dishing out bouquet's for yom tov!" Someone else called out "How often do you get extra for free, enjoy the perks!"

Just as things were finally starting to move another elderly couple emerged from one of the treatment rooms. He was tall, bearded and stately in old fashioned Bedouin robes and artfully draped headcloth. She wore an exquisite hand-embroidered traditional Bedouin women's dress covered in intricate cross-stitch designs, an older style one you don't see often today because they are so labour intensive to make, her head covered with a fine white damascene headshawl.

After the cute elderly Yemeni couple finished with the doctor they blessed every person they passed on the way out. "Good health and a speedy recovery" to the bald woman who'd just finished chemo. '"You should have an easy birth and much joy from your child" to the pregnant lady. "Next year you will hike Masada and run a Marathon" to the man with a bandaged leg. And so on.

Just as they were heading out another couple emerged from one of the treatment rooms, this time elderly old school Bedouin, he in stately robes and artfully arranged white headcloth, she in magnificently heavily embroidered traditional dress of a style not often seen today because it is so labour intensive to sew the intricate tiny cross stitch designs.

The nurse wished him refuah sheleimah (complete recovery), and he turned to the whole room and in very elegant Hebrew without a trace of an Arabic accent, blessed everyone in the waiting room with good health, good tidings, happiness and pride and pleasure from their families - and hag sameah (happy holiday).

His wife whispered something to him in Arabic, and he added "and a happy and kosher Passover to all".

Monday, February 29, 2016

El Niño

It's not unusual to have bright sun and even a heatwave in an Israeli February. True, it's also a season for rain storms, sometimes even the odd snow flurry in the higher altitude regions.

This year though the rains were a little different, both in quantity and in pattern.

The north of Israel, home of Israel's only significant freshwater lake, the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), was unusually dry this winter rainy season. True, with Israel's state of the art desalination technology the country no longer relies on pumping water from the Sea of Galilee as it once did, but the lake is still important both ecologically and because while desalination makes sense for Israel's densely populated coastal region, the Kinneret is still the prime source of water for the inland north-east.

There is now talk of building a desalination plant in northern Israel due to the severity of the drought up north and the need to replenish streams and aquifers in danger of running dry due to the paucity of the rainy season in this usually water rich region of Israel.

Furthermore Israel is committed to supplying water to the neighbouring Kingdom of Jordan, a further drain on Israeli water resources. Jordan has been afflicted even more severely by the drought and it struggling to provide water for a population swelled by well over a million refugees from neighbouring Syria and Iraq, and even as far afield as Libya. Israeli water is critical to the kingdom's water supply, and so must be factored in to Israel's water calculations.

Meanwhile Israel's arid desert south received copious precipitation this winter (at least by desert standards), with several major rain events and massive flash flooding. Southern Israel's Negev and Arava regions have been experiencing years of drought so severe that even the hardy desert acacia trees have begun to wither and die, and with them the bountiful wildlife that relies on them for sustenance. Things had become so bad that in some recent winters National Parks Authority rangers and conservationists had been artificially watering seasonal stream beds in emergency measures to save the lives of local animals facing starvation and drought.

Israel's south-central coasts all got clobbered with massive rainstorms dropping a month's worth of rain in the space of a few hours. Flooding ensued, with even well developed infrastructure unable to cope with the extreme deluge.

And now it's late February and both this month and January have been if anything drier than usual, it feels as though spring is already here. Rain or shine, this is peak flower season for Israel, but the question is how the lack of late winter rain will effect the blossoms still waiting to bloom later in the spring, and more importantly the crops yet to ripen. El Niño in the Middle East.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Think again

For many in the media Dafna Meir with her headscarf and West Bank address was obviously a far right wing nationalist fundamentalist extremist. How could it be other way? They would say the same about Mikhal Fruman, and certainly her late father-in-law Rabbi Menahem Fruman, what else could a religious West Bank settler with a long white beard be?

And yet the point missed by much of the media, local and foreign, is that this stereoptype is just that, a stereotype. Jews living over the Green Line are nuanced just as much as Jews living within the Green Line.

Dafna Meir was not the only religious Israeli living in the Hebron hills who had decided to learn Arabic to better interact with the local Arab population. Her husband isn't the only religious settler to have friends from among his Palestinian neighbours.

The late Rabbi Fruman from Tekoa was absolutely a fundamentalist. He believed that religious was the fundamental root of this region and that interfaith dialogue and understanding was fundamental to building a new Middle East. To that end he was prepared to pray with people of all faiths, including sworn enemies of Israel like Hamas, in order to create a bridge between the local religious communities in the hope of bringing peace. In nearby Efrat, community leader Rabbi Riskin has also made a point of reaching out to his Palestinian neighbours and setting an example for regional coexistance.

Despite the wild-eyed stereotypes, despite the media playing up the crazed religious nutter settler image, you'll find Jews all over this region who precisely because they are living in the West Bank have taken the trouble to meet their Palestinian neighbours, whether through co-existance initiatives, or simply from living close to each other, shopping in the same Rami Levi supermarkets or working in local businesses.

They may have widely differing political and religious visions for the region, or not, but on a day to day basis many people do find a way to live together and interact. This is despite the horrific anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incitement coming from the Palestinian Authority and many local mosque preachers, Hamas and European activists.