Thursday, October 26, 2017

Blue and white and red all over

I really didn't particularly want to go to the Red Army Choir concert tonight, but my daughter couldn't come and there was a ticket going, so I went and boy am I glad that I did.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't enjoy choirs or Russian music, I imbibed both with my mother's milk, I just had so much to do this evening that the thought of a late night out including schlepping in and out of the "big city" just didn't appeal, and maybe if it had just been the Red Army Choir and dance ensemble, talented as they are, it wouldn't have been worth the schlep and time right now, but tonight was so much more.

It all started out as a typical Red Army Choir performance, a military orchestra featuring a great many balalaikas and a troupe of uniformed men with deep voices singing Russian patriotic and folk songs, each baritone soloist showing off greater vocal flourishes than his predecessor while video screens showed clips of Second World War Soviet propaganda films of smiling Soviet soldiers and pilots or modern colour images of Russian landscapes and aerobatic displays. There was even a black and white sequence showing trainloads of soldiers returning from war being greeted by women bearing flowers, the front of the steam engine adorned with Lenin's stern visage.

In between songs the supremely talented dancers dressed in World War Two era uniforms or Russian folk costumes pranced and twirled and kazachkad  on stage to the strains of folk or military instrumental numbers, cheered on by the audience as the routines became more and more complex and gravity defying.

Then legendary Israeli radio announcer Dan Kaner came on stage to announce a guest artist, none other than even more legendary Israeli singer and musicals star Dudu Fisher, for a joint effort by an Israeli performer with the Red Army Choir: Adon Olam, Kol Nidrei and A Yiddishe Mameh. The crowd went wild, then hushed.

Beside me my 8 year-old son's eyes grew wide with excitement.

"Ima, it's Dudu from Hagan Shel Dudu!" (Dudu's kindergarten, a popular series of Israeli children's videos)

As the opening strains of the music were heard he couldn't contain himself, whispering in my ear "Ima, it's Uzi Hitman's "Adon Olam"!

On stage Dudu Fisher had been joined by one of the smiling rosy cheeked Red Army Choir soloists, clad in a pristine white and gold uniform and singing the well known modern arrangement of this ancient Hebrew prayer written by beloved Israeli songwriter Uzi Hitman.

A Red Army Choir soloist singing in Hebrew, and not just any old Israeli song, but a deeply cherished and ancient Hebrew prayer in a duet with Israel's most famous Orthodox Jewish singer. Who could have imagined such a thing?

Glancing to my right I saw that my uncle had tears streaming down his cheeks. All around me there were fellow Israelis watching and listening with smiles on their faces and eyes and faces glistening with tears that flowed more and more as Dudu Fisher led the Russian troupe in Kol Nidrei and A Yiddishe Mama.

You had to be there to believe it, like a taste of the coming of the Messiah.

After all the years of Soviet and Russian persecution of the Jews, all the years of oppression during which learning Hebrew and practicing Judaism were suppressed who could have conceived of an event like this, one of the most famous official Russian folklore and patriotic ensembles, an official entertainment troupe of the Russian military no less, standing on the stage of Tel Aviv's famous concert hall packed to the gills with Israelis, many of them religious, performing Hebrew language prayers alongside a religious Israeli singer?

The campaign for Soviet Jewry and non-Jewish Soviet dissidents was a fundamental part of my childhood. I was taken to my first meetings and demonstrations while still in my mother's womb. I grew up writing letters to Soviet Jewish children my age and drawing pictures to show support for imprisoned Soviet Jewish refuseniks, arrested on trumped up charges for the simple desire to make aliyah to the Jewish state or teach Hebrew to fellow Jews.

Back in the late 70s and 80s my family and family friends would have protested outside a concert by an official Soviet group like the Red Army Choir. Sitting in the audience tonight during the series of Russian folk numbers and dance routines part of me had a moment of confusion wondering if I should be jumping up in the middle of a Russian patriotic song and shouting "Let my people go!", the rallying cry of the movement campaigning for the right of Soviet Jews denied exit visas to leave the USSR and emigrate to Israel.

My uncle had travelled to the Soviet Union carrying suitcases with secret compartments stuffed with illegal items like Jewish prayer books, tefillin and teaching aids for learning Hebrew, the cassettes disguised as recordings of the classics, with music at the beginning, then a Hebrew lesson and more classical music at the end to hide the true contents of the tape. He was successful at smuggling these items to Moscow, along with vital medications for Refuseniks, evading the suspicion of the KGB with his innocent smile and copious purchases of official Soviet Communist publications at every tourist shop. 

And here he was sitting in the audience of a Tel Aviv concert hall crying as Dudu Fisher sang in Hebrew and Yiddish with the Red Army Choir like a vision of the end of days. Way to say "we won" and have the likes of Stalin and Brezhnev turning in their graves.

Looking at the weeping adults around him, many of them elderly Bubbes and Zaydes, my 8 year-old son was puzzled as to why the star of Dudu's Kindergarten had made them cry.

אני מאמין

אחרית הימים. דודו פישר עולה על הבמה בהיכל התרבות בת"א ושר את אדון עולם של עוזי חיטמן, כל נדרי ויידישע מאמע מלווה במקהלת הצבא האדום ואחד מסולניו. ששרים איתו בעברית וביידיש.

אני יושבת ליד הדוד שלי, שהיה פעיל למען יהודי ברית המועצות והיה נוסע למוסקבה כדי להבריח ספרים וקלטות לימוד בעברית, תשמישי קדושה ואף תרופות חיוניות למסורבי עליה. יש לו דמעות בעיניים וכשאני מסתכלת מסביב ברור לי שאינו היחיד, רחוק מאד מלהיות היחיד שחווה את המעמד ההזוי הזה ודומע מרב התרגשות.

והמופע הזה באמת הזוי. כל השנים האלה של דיכוי היהדות היהודים והשפה העברית והנה גולת הכותרת של הלהקות היצוגיות מרוסיה עומדת שם על במה בתל אביב לבוש מדי צבא רוסיים מפוארים מול אולם מלא עד אפס מקום בישראלים כולל לא מעט חובשי כיפות. היא פותחת את המופע כצפוי עם שירים רוסיים פטריוטים (מלווים בקטעי וידיאו עוד יותר פטריוטיים של הצבא האדום במלחמת העולם השניה) ואז מופיע דן כנר על הבמה ומזמין את דודו פישר חובש הכיפה לשיר עם מקהלת הצבא האדום את אדון עולם. והנה עומד ליד דודו פישר סולן הלהקה במדי לבן וזהב ושר דואט איתו, לא סתם שיר בעברית אלא תפילה בעברית, אחת התפילות הכי מפורסמות.

אין מה להגיד, אחרית הימים, מי היה מאמין.

ובן השמונה שיושב לידי לא מבין את פשר הדבר, למה מסביבו יושבים מבוגרים, בעיקר סבים וסבתות, ובוכים כשכוכב הגן של דודו מתחיל לשי

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

When the Levee Breaks

When the Levee Breaks

If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
When the levee breaks I'll have no place to stay

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan

This song was written originally about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 which triggered large migrations to the Mid West among the mostly African-American population in the region affected by the devastation.

The flood featured in many Blues songs of the period, planting the image of the all important life and death determining levee in popular culture.

As Israelis the image of a rainstorm of such biblical proportions is particularly evocative and sobering at this time of year when our thoughts start to turn to the coming rainy season and the Days of Awe, including the prayer for rain, may it be for a blessing and not a curse, may it fall at the right time and in the right proportion.

We are only too aware that the rainy season balances on a a knife edge between drought and flood, each with its own potential for devastation.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Houston.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A little felafel story

Today was the only time DH was able to take off work during the month of August so we needed to fit in a whole summer holiday's worth of family fun in one day. The morning was spent in a cute little petting zoo where the kids got to hold parakeets, milk a goat and marvel at butterflies. Then we split up, little kids went off to a park and to visit their great-aunt and big kids had hours of adventure at The Citadel Museum in Jerusalem's Old City. And a good time was had by all.

As the activities wound down though our brood realised they were utterly famished, despite eating copious amounts of DH's aunt's patented amazing fishcakes and assorted fruit and crackers. There would be no getting this lot back in the car until they were fed. Again.

So we decided to do something radical. We took the kids out for felafel tonight. We rarely ever eat out so this was a big deal for all concerned. It seemed like the perfect place, Ajami's, a veteran little hole in the wall felafel and shwarma place on a quietish sidestreet next to a large open area of pavement with space for kids to play away from the crowds of busier city centre eateries.

Outdoor on the terrace a large French family occupying a huge long table was just finishing up their dinner. At one of the few indoor tables a uniformed security guard, clearly a regular, was tucking in to a tray of kubbeh, salad and lemonade brought to him with a smile by the owner. It looked like the right kind of place.

I managed to get everyone seated, two oldest outside with me, DH inside with the other three little people while I stood at the counter to quickly order the starving masses their fodder. Well as quickly as one can trying to take in to account the preferences of five ravenous but opinionated children who may just have been hungry enough to eat the furniture while they were waiting.

The staff were incredibly efficient and the kids were soon tucking in to fresh hot food, well, except for a twin who just wanted to take his brothers' chips and grab/play with an (unplugged) fan switch.

The utterly exhausted overtired big two who'd spent the afternoon schlepping around ruins and learning to fight like knights were eating happily but still kind of kicking each other under the table in a mostly playful fashion.

One kid decided to take apart their pita so they could eat all the parts individually because it's more fun than you know table manners or anything like that. The paper their food was wrapped was soon littered with torn hummous tehina smeared laffa and falafel balls while they picked out the cucumber tomato and pickles - their favourite parts - to eat first. With their hands. Which of course were now also smeared with hummous and tehina.

By now two kids had finished wolfing down their meal and were playing a game of tag around the (mostly empty) outdoor terrace, wide stone steps and public square. It was evening, the street was far from crowded and truth be told there was plenty of space for them to play without disturbing anyone but still, DH and I don't usually allow this kind of behaviour in a public thoroughfare.

Then the twins who'd been sitting indoors noticed a cat sitting on a wall and dashed out of the dinky diner with delighted shrieks of "Tul! Tul!" (short for hatul, Hebrew for cat). They plonked themselves down on the step below the wall and contented themselves with pointing at the surprisingly chilled feline, watching them coolly from her perch.

At this point the owner came over striding briskly and I was so ready for the comment, a comment, something negative, someone is making a mess or misbehaving. Instead she stops right in front of me and beams: "Oh, are the kids at both these tables all yours? Such sweet kids, love how they are all smiling and enjoying their food and full of life with a bit of mischief thrown in. Next time you come you're welcome to leave them here for a bit, I'd be happy to babysit. Make sure you get them all some lemonade for dessert. On the house of course."

Friday, August 11, 2017

August Adventures at the A & E

I began the day around 6am being slapped around by a nice looking young man who wanted to give me drugs.

Well, OK, he was a nurse at Terem urgent care and was trying to find a vein for an IV. He stabbed me four time before the (female) nurse from the next shift came on and calmly and painlessly found a vein and pumped me full of antibiotics to treat what the on duty doctor believed was an acute infection.

Fast forward a few hours and I woke up from a nap with my upper face even more red and swollen. I was doing a brilliant impression of a Tajik nomad all incredibly high ruddy cheek bones and dark crescent shaped eyes, elongated nose. Seriously considered finding my Turkmen headress and necklace from my folk costume collection just to match the authenticity of my face. Asked DH if he might be able to import some yaks for me, or maybe at least yak butter.

Family doc said we had better rush to A & E, thank Hashem that morning I had told DH to arrange a babysitter for this afternoon beause I felt so awful. A friend's teen daughter graciously volunteered to watch the twins (other kids have long kaytana days this week, B"H).

An episode from House ensued at the hospital, trying to figure out the mystery of what had morphed my face in to someone else's, my eyes by now almost swollen completely shut. Staff were brilliant, kind, friendly, helpful, efficient and totally on the ball.

In the bed next to me there was a Palestinian security prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, handcuffs and leg irons, guarded by three burly heavily armed prison wardens.

In the bed on the other side there was an elderly Teimani man from one of the recent aliyot, his wife like a Time-Life photo from the 1950s, all traditional double headscarf, filigre Yemini jewellery and old school tunic over embroidered leggings. Fortunately they had a Hebrew speaking adult son with them as she was a little mixed up and kept going over and checking the dustbin or walking over to the hospital security guard and talking to him in a Teimani dialect he plainly didn't understand but very kindly tried to pretend he did, all gentle smiles and nods.

Finally my blood tests were back and the conclusion was that it wasn't cellulitis as a local GP had originally thought but for sure an allergic reaction (the admitting nurses' hunches which they discussed with me at length while trying to find a vein, again) Secondary infection in the skin from the weeping sores which we now know are part of a classic text book case of reacting to - mango sap!

So now you know, weird bump like, blisters that look like infected bites, but oddly clustered, eventually coming to resemble burns and you know you picked mango earlier in the week, you get some contact rashes on hands, but nothing really serious, and then a few days later your whole face blows up and your eyes swell shut - mango sap. Wear protection while picking the fruit just in case.

After IV antibiotics, steroids, antihistamine shots and fluids followed by waiting to see if there was any change in my condition and they eventually decided that while I still look awful, the inflamation is starting to abate. As at least two nurses put it "At kvar lo nireit kmo agvania!" (you no longer look like a tomato). I do still look like a Tajik nomad woman, a fact confirmed by the Kazakh lady wheeling in her elderly father.

While we were waiting a bevy of teens (maybe old enough to be doing national service, but very young looking) clad in painted on jeans and crop tops came through with an Ezer Mitzion cart of teas, coffees and cakes. An hour later a hassid in full Hassidish regalia came through with a cart full of snacks, sandwiches and juices, sponsored by a different charity organisation. He stopped on his rounds to help feed some elderly women who couldn't manage the sandwich packaging (after checking it was OK with nurses) So much kindness at work in A & E, everything given out free to patients and those accompanying them.

Finally after another careful study of my face the very concerned and sweet Dr Mahmud decided to discharge me with an alphabet soup of medications to take around the clock, stern warnings about what signs to watch for and come back to them with. As the very very nice and patient pharmacist said "zeh yekhabeh lakh et hasreifa" (this will put the fire out).

Meanwhile DH spent the afternoon finding babysitters to cover for us. Neighbours, folks from our shul, local cousins, vague friends we kind of know from kaytana - so many people pitched in to help or tried to find us someone, such tremendous gmilut hassadim (loving kindness). At one stage there were four teens at our home playing with the twins (two neighbours and two daughters of the lady who helped design our kitchen renovation last summer) No one would take payment.

Home now, finally managed to eat, took a bunch of medication (the before the meal, after the meal, the wait five hours between this and my regular stuff etc). Feeling lousy, but relieved we finally seem to know what's going on and treatment seems to be finally showing an improvement in my condition.

So there you have it, my August adventure.

So in today's trip to the hospital we had:

Orange is the New Black - prisoner in orange jumpsuit, handcuffs, legirons and three burly heavily armed prison guards sitting with us in the A&E.

House - several nurses and doctors study my symptoms, quizz me about anything different or unsusual I may have been exposed to in recent days and try to figure out what caused my allergic reaction.

National Geographic - fascinating traditional clothing from Yemen, Ethiopia, India, Israel's Bedouin, Hassidic eastern Europe and Uzbek guy in stunning kippa.

Dr Who - middle aged doctor examines me, comes back an hour later looking 20 years younger and with a different face. Different assistant too. Still introduces himself as "The Doctor".

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Holy Fire - confronting evil and finding faith during the Holocaust

Interesting reading for Tisha B'Av, the most sombre day of the Jewish year, returning to read Nehemia Polen's intense and moving work The Holy Fire, about the teachings of the Esh Kodesh, R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, author of what was to be the last Hassidic work written in Poland, a text he buried under the ghetto before his murder at the hands of the Nazis when the ghetto was liquidated in 1943.

Miraculously R' Shapira's work survived and was found during the post-war rebuilding of Warsaw and published as Esh Kodesh (Holy Fire).

He does not write a war memoir, but a deeply thoughtful book on understanding evil, of faith at a time of tragedy, of the destiny of the Jewish people and finding good during such a horrific time.

Written during the Holocaust, rather than afterwards, R' Shapira's work is a real time response to this calamity rather than an attempt to come to terms with it in hindsight.

If historian Emmanuel Ringlebaum's Warsaw Ghetto diary and archive devoted themselves to recording the physical and emotional events, R' Shapira's book is a spiritual journal of his Holocaust experience, a Hassidic master's Eikhah for his time. I wonder how Jeremiah would relate to Esh Kodesh.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Some thoughts on US and Israel

Between the controversy surrounding egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and ensuing threats and prophecies of doom from various US Jewish leaders and writers if Israel doesn't change its position it's been an all together too interesting time to be an Israeli Jew.

Reading US Jewish reactions to Israel's decision not to enlarge the egalitarian prayer space at Robinson's Arch one would assume that US Jewry is the world's most important Jewish community and that therefore what US Jewish leaders want and think should be the guiding light for Israeli policy, rather than the Israeli electorate who democratically selected Israel's government and must actually live with that government's actions on a daily basis.

In these pieces and in conversation with American Jews, I am struck by the disconnect between our two communities. Not in the way that US Jews think, that Israel is ignoring them and being insensitive to their needs (well, to some extent yes, but I'll get to that in a minute), but in the way that most US Jews, especially the vast majority who have never visited, don't realise that Israel is no longer the hugely underdeveloped deeply impoverished basket case of a country it was in the 1950s, home to a rag tag assortment of Jewish refugees from around the world, many still living in tents and shanty towns as the nascent Jewish state struggled to find shelter for them all.

Yes, Israel is still a country facing huge challenges which could use all the help it can get, but it's hard to call modern Israel a charity case which will collapse without US Jewry's support.

In terms of demographics there is today almost parity between the world's two largest communities, the US and Israel, with roughly similar numbers of Jews in each. A key difference is that in Israel that population is growing by leaps and bounds, not due to immigration, which has declined to a trickle, but due to high birth rates and a family oriented culture. The same cannot be said for US Jewry, which between high levels of assimilation and intermarriage, and aside from the Orthodox minority, birth rates below the US average, is in the midst of a silent Holocaust that has been ongoing for decades, with millions of people lost to the Jewish nation.

There needs to be a very fundamental rethinking of the model. If there was a perception that Israel is a poor sparsley populated country which can be controlled by US purse strings (and to this day I meet many US Jews who seem to think this way) there needs to be recognition that Israel is relatively wealthy by global standards, has a healthy and growing economy, lower maternal and infant mortality rates than the US and is home to over 6 millions Jews, the majority of whom, even if secular in their lifestyle, have a more traditional orientation when it comes to Jewish practice and theology.

American Jewish leadership needs to rethink their attitude to Israel accordingly. It's all very well being offended by the attitude of the Israeli rabbinic leadership, but the fact is that Reform and Conservative Judaism are tiny fringe movements in Israel is a large part of the reason why there is relatively little local concern for them, they simply are not a fact of life for most Israelis, many of whom have never had any contact with someone from either community.

Bullying Israel with boycotts and cutting off funding for hospitals (as Daniel Gordis proposed) is not going to change that. Increased US funding of Israel's Reform and Conservative movements might have an impact, but even more so would be drastically increased aliya rates from those US communities, and that just isn't happening because most US Jews simply are not interested.

To cry that Israel isn't doing what you want while not actively participating in Israeli life does not seem to be a very effective tactic. Education, outreach and increased aliya would be far more likely to have some effect.

Most of all though there needs to be some reflection and introspection on the part of the leaders of US Jewry from all parts of the spectrum. How can it be that such a wealthy, well established Jewish community as the US is hemorhaging Jews? In 1948 there were about 5 million Jews in the United States. At the same time in the nascent State of Israel there were less than a million.

In the intervening decades both countries saw Jewish immigration from a variety of sources and yet by the early 21st century US Jewry had barely increased its numbers, hovering at around 5.5 million or so, depending on how you count, while in Israel that tiny population of the state's early years had grown to 6 million and increasing? If US Reform and Conservative are having such a hard time holding on to their own people do they really presume to lecture Israel and blame it for their "alienation"?

Then there is the strategic angle. Enraged US Conservative and Reform Jews threaten that they will stop supporting Israel and as a result end the US military alliance with Israel, thus leading to the end of the Jewish state, or, they hope, forcing Israel to come begging to the US community, willing to do whatever it is they wish Israel will do.

The fact is though that the US isn't giving Israel military aid because of US Jewry. US military aid is a roundabout way of providing huge subsidies from the US government to the US defence industry and calling it "aid", when it comes with strings that Israel has to use the funds to buy American, so locking in Israel as customer for the US defence industry and sidelining competitors in both Israel and Europe. The US military in particular is also aware (I hope also the State Dept) that in an increasingly unstable and volatile Mid East, Israel is an increasingly important ally and regional anchor, whether it's because of Israel's stable democracy and Western orientation, or because Israeli gas finds have the potential to help wean parts of Europe away from dependency on Russian gas, provide support to other US regional allies (openly or behind the scenes) and share key intelligence.

Israel is emerging as a strong and stable regional power, a world leader in technological innovation and has the fastest growing population in the developed world. Meanwhile the US Jewish community with all its wealth and sophistication is shrinking. 
It's time more US Jews, especially US Jewish leaders, realised this and rethought their game plan accordingly.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Don't say that it was better in the old days...

I keep seeing people posting 100+ year-old photos of men and women praying side by side at the Kotel, examples of an imagined paradise time when everyone prayed together and all was groovy.

The reason there was no mehitza (ritual divider between men and women) at the Kotel was that at various times the Ottoman authorities (and later the British) would not allow it. There is a reason you hardly see any furniture there.

The British at one stage had soldiers stationed at the Kotel to make sure no Jews sat down or brought benches or chairs, even beating Jews who tried to set up a mehitza or bring furniture to the Kotel.

Jews were not allowed to pray loudly and Jews were arrested by the British for bringing and trying to blow the shofar at the site. It was far from being a golden era, Jews prayed at the Kotel in fear and at their own risk.

Haj Amin al-Hussein, the senior Muslim authority at the time in Jerusalem tried to whip up anti-Jewish sentiment by implying that any Jewish furniture or hanging of lanterns at the Kotel was part of a Jewish attempt to eventually seize al-Aqsa and the Temple Mount from Muslim control. This eventually escalated in to anti-Jewish riots and the massacre of scores of Jews, including the infamous 1929 massacre of 69 members of the Hebron Jewish community. The British responded with even more draconian restrictions of Jewish access to the Kotel.

When Israel did finally gain control of the Kotel, setting it up as a place of prayer, with a mehitza, chairs and aron kodesh was a powerful symbol of Jewish sovereignty over this most sacred site after so many foreign rulers had forbidden anything that might be construed as Jewish ownership of the site.

All this isn't to say that the current situation is ideal, far from it, but we shouldn't pine for an imagined golden era that never was nor necessarily ascribe modern ideals and values to our 19th and early 20th century ancestors.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

O Jerusalem

It's a pleasantly chillyish (by local standards) June evening in Jerusalem.

City traffic is fouled up for a change by a US diplomatic mission motorcade, with more streets closed off around the Old City for Ramadan prayers and festivities. Business as usual in this city of religious holidays and shuttle diplomacy.

In the swank Mamilla pedestrian mall the foot traffic is every bit as busy. Elegant and expensively dressed Muslim Jerusalemites are enjoying the magic of Ramadan nights buying new clothes in the upscale shops for the upcoming Eid el Fitr celebration, feasting at the popular restaurants and cafes, many with stunning views of Jerusalem's trademark Old City walls.

Among them throng the first of the summer tour groups, Christian and Jewish students and pilgrims, massive groups from China who seem as fascinated by the religious tourists as by the locals themselves, all part of the Jerusalem experience.

There's no shortage of Israeli Jewish pedestrians either of every type and every level of religiosity (or none), some local, many who've come from out of town especially for the free show being projected three times a night, every night for fifty nights in commemoration of the city's reunification in the June 1967 Six Day War.

The railings facing the 40 foot walls leading up to the Jaffa Gate are packed well before the start of the show, spectators already getting in to the mood with the medley of Jerusalem songs playing over the loudspeakers, many singing along.

My children watch the clock counting down with eager anticipation. They know the words to almost all these songs, most of which were already "oldies" when I was a child. Maybe I'm an old fogey but I've been raising them with the household soundtracks of my youth.

And with a dramatically projected ticking clock it begins. Verses from Psalms alternate with flashes of Jerusalem's pivotal role in Jewish history, from Abraham and Jacob, the founding fathers of our people, to Solomon's Temple and its destruction at the hands of the Babylonian Nebuchadnetzer, Jerusalem's rebuilding in the time of Ezra and Nehamiah, destruction by Rome and centuries upon centuries of gradual Jewish return in dribs and drabs from the many lands of our exile, culminating in the city's dramatic restoration process begun by Moses Montifiore in the 19th century, and which continues to this day.

I am not usually one to get the weepies, but seeing the words of the Psalmist "If I forget thee O Jerusalem" writ large upon the Old City ramparts I felt my heart swell with such emotion and my eyes start to tear with a mix of awe and joy and stunned wonder that I here I was in a generation privileged to see such things.

I remember as a child visiting Jerusalem with my mother and her showing me where in her student days in the late 50s and early 60s she and her friends would go in the then divided city to catch glimpses of the Old City and the Jewish sites that lay forbidden in Jordanian occupied sectors of the city, beyond the wall and the barbed wire.

They were warned not to take out cameras, lest a trigger happy Jordanian soldier on the wall take a pot shot. The Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Rachel's Tomb - Judaism's most sacred places, were a dream many Jews feared they would never live to see.

About twenty five years later she would point out where back then there had been barbed wire and no man's land but where today we walked freely across the road, or which areas had been considered dangerous because they were within Jordanian sniper range, including exposed chunks of the terrace in the legendary King David hotel. 

We would walk along the old "seam" between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors with her pointing out the tenements on the Israeli side which faced the armistice line, their windows narrow slits on the side facing the Jordanian guard posts for fear of sniper fire. It wasn't even twenty years then since Israel had unified the city.

Strolling down Jaffa Road to the Old City in those days required passing by a chunk of wasteland, a mix of derelict buildings, historic structures and open land, scars from the time of the city's division.

This evening I walked with my children through that very place, the beautifully refurbished and renovated Yemin Moshe, Mishkenot Shaananim and of course, the glittering Mamilla pedestrian mall. Jewish and Arab families enjoying the mild June evening as they watched the fountain display in Teddy Park, and yet more people filling the nearby restaurants of Hutzot Hayotzer.

I have quite literally seen so much of Jerusalem rebuilt within my lifetime I can only imagine what it must be like for those older than me who've seen so much more.

Oh Imma, would that you could see what it has become now, you who thirty and twenty years ago marvelled at the city's rebirth in the wake of its 1967 reunification. how much it has grown and developed only in the last decade.

And so I could not hold back the tears at the scenes of the liberation of the Old City by the Israeli army in 1967. The paratroops wending their way through the alleys, the iconic photo of the tired but elated faces of the three soldiers at the Kotel, the historic radio message "The Temple Mount is in our hands". All bold text and lifelike pictures projected on to the city's 40 foot walls where once enemy snipers held the city's Jewish residents in fear of their lives. Two thousand years of blood, exile and tears brought to life on these walls which symbolised the hope of our people to return home from every remote corner of our exile.

I wept too because I grew up hearing this story first hand from people who lived it, from the tragic fall of the Old City to the Jordanians and subsequent exiling of its Jews during Israel's War of Independence to the fraught battles around Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War. The restoration of Jewish sovereignty to our ancient capital and most sacred city may be miraculous, but it certainly has not been without cost.

My uncle told me how he visited the Kotel for the first time merely days after its liberation, the Old City still freshly scarred from the battles, exhausted dirty soldiers with vacant eyes trying to comprehend the whirlwind events, weeping soundlessly as they caressed the ancient stones.

My grandmother's eyes would grow moist as she recalled her visit to Jerusalem in the summer of 1967, part of a sea of Jews from across Israel and the world who descended on the Holy City to finally behold Judaism's most sacred heartland with their own eyes for the first time in their lives.

Fifty years later here I was with my family, my daughter celebrating her bat mitzva birthday in the year of Jerusalem's unification jubilee, watching the mix of history, Psalms, poetry and yes, also sentimental Israeli kitsche, play across the walls, broadcasting our love and yearning for Zion across the years and exiles.

This Jerusalem which today is the biggest and most sprawling it has ever been in all the thousands of years of its history, teeming with Torah learning, science, art, music and such a mix of peoples, languages and cultures, but at its heart, once more the living, breathing centre of Jewish life as in the days of ancient Israel. And my tears were tears of joy and tears of awe at this wonder of wonders.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

They Shall Not Pass

My mother visited Israel not long after the '73 War and came back with a few records of Israeli songs from that conflict, part of the soundtrack of my childhood. Songs that became Israeli classics like Naomi Shemer's "Lu Yehi" (Let It Be) and Yehoram Gaon's "Ani Mavtiah Lakh" (I Promise You).

Songs that prayed for peace, for the safe return of loved ones serving at the front, about the desire to live normally without threat of conflict constantly hanging over Israel, the loss of youthful innocence as yet another generation underwent a baptism of fire, gratitude to God and the dedicated men and women protecting Israel's borders from enemies bent on the destruction of the Jewish state.

This song isn't one of the best known, but it stuck in my mind as a child. A song originally recorded by the Golani entertainment troupe during the war it's strident tone directed at the enemy "You shall not pass" and vivid imagery struck a chord, especially as I knew that some of my mother's friends or their children had fought on the Golan.

It wasn't until I learnt the biblical book of Amos as a teen that I fully understood the reference in the song's opening. I think of these verses often in recent years as the horrific war in neighbouring Syria goes on and on with no clear end in sight, every so often spilling over the border with a "stray" shell or rocket or mortar landing on the Israeli side, mostly without injury, but also killing and wounding Israelis working or living near the border fence, most recently hurting a young girl from the moshav of Alonei Habashan near the Syrian border.

The passage from Amos seemed to describe the chaos and displacement of the war in Syria and a government that had pushed its own people too far with its oppression and harsh rule.

ג כה, אמר ה", על-שלושה פשעי דמשק, ועל-ארבעה לא אשיבנו: על-דושם בחרוצות הברזל, את-הגלעד. ד ושילחתי אש, בבית חזאל; ואכלה, ארמנות בן-הדד. ה ושברתי, בריח דמשק, והכרתי יושב מבקעת-אוון, ותומך שבט מבית עדן; וגלו עם-ארם קירה, אמר ה" (עמוס, פרק א)
 3 Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not turn away its punishment, Because they have threshed Gilead with implements of iron. 4 But I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, Which shall devour the palaces of Ben-Hadad. 5 I will also break the gate bar of Damascus, And cut off the inhabitant from the Valley of Aven, And the one who holds the scepter from Beth Eden. The people of Syria shall go captive to Kir,” Says the Lord.

The truce that ended the Yom Kippur War kept the border with Syria quiet for decades with a clear DMZ between the sides policed by UN peacekeepers and a border gate that allowed the passage of Golan Druze from Israel to Syria for family visits, marriages and studies. When Syria combusted all of that gradually fell apart, peacekeepers held hostage by militias on the Syrian side, the rhythm of life on the Syrian side of the Golan turned to turmoil and atrocities.

More than ever this song from over 40 years ago is relevant to our region. Please Hashem keep the soldiers on the Golan strong and alert to protect our northern borders and all who dwell close to it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Tory and the Communist

Indulge me a ramble through childhood memories.

When I was a kid my uncle, an Orthodox Jew, fan of Mrs Thatcher and an activist in the Campaign for Soviet Jewry, and one of his best friends, a card carrying member of the British Communist Party and secular humanist, would always greet each other thus, if you'll excuse the post-Holocaust Jewish black humour "We may disagree on almost everything, but if and when they round up the Jews again, they'll put us side by side against the wall to be shot".

The message was clear, their politics were polar opposite from each other, but they still knew they were brothers and they knew full well that only a few decades earlier Jews of every kind regardless of religious or political affiliation had been slaughtered wholesale simply because they were Jews.

It was a very powerful message to grow-up with.

At Shabbat or Sunday tea time in our home you could find trades union activists and city gents, Zionists, internationalists, fans of Mr Begin and supporters of Shulamit Aloni, Hassidim, dyed in the wool British "establishment" Jews who's ancestors had come over in the 17th century, veterans of WWs I and II, Jews who'd fled Iraq, Germany, Iran, the USSR, Poland, Pakistan, Egypt and Aden, lots and lots of teachers and academics, members of the British Conservative, Labour, Communist and Liberal Democratic parties, the odd Likud member and on one occasion Labour MK Avrum Burg.

Many were Orthodox Jews, many were not, some were the very proper British Anglican retirees from the top of the street, or the Pakistani Muslim neighbours from across the road who's grandmother liked to practise her English and swap recipes with my Bubbe, the family of Lithuanian dissidents who were terrified that the KGB were after them, or the Cypriot Christian couple from round the corner who came especially for my grandmother's rogelakh and cinnamon-raisin kikhelakh.

The biggest lesson I learnt from all this was that people do not fit in to neat boxes, right or left, black or white, positive or negative. Or rather that there good be people who were absolute evil, but those were thankfully rare, and the vast majority were far more complex than that, and that most were fundamentally decent people trying to figure out what was good and just in a turbulent world. The fact that many reached opposing conclusions on this did not negate their humanity or their decency.

It seems trite to have to say this, but it is one of the most valuable life lessons I ever learnt from my family, that you can be resolute in your own opinions, ideals and values, and yet have a home which is open to those who disagree with you, are diametrically opposed to you, are completely and utterly different from you. You can share afternoon tea and biscuits while have a civil but heated debate about everything under the sun. And you can still be friends and neighbours when you've agreed to disagree.

Just because this is a cliche does not make it less true.