Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Israel, Part Three, The Lay of the Land and the Mind

The Heart, the Bubble, and the Periphery

Even though Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are only 45 minutes apart, and people go back and forth all the time, the two cites are also worlds apart.  Our itinerary, unintentionally I’m sure, made them seem even farther apart.  Our route was a big oval.  Ben-Gurion airport — Negev desert — Dead Sea — Jerusalem — Bet She’an — Golan Heights — Haifa — Tel Aviv.  We didn’t travel directly from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv or vice versa.

In Israel, they call Tel Aviv “ha bu’a,” the bubble, because in many ways it is a world apart from the rest of the country.  It sits alone, self-contained, like Manhattan but without the rivers and bridges and tunnels. It is alive. 

Jerusalem is the heart of the world, completely connected, yet unique.  It is truly like a heart, with arteries and veins, with chambers beating and squeezing.  It forces together, it pushes out.  It takes in breath and it exhales spirit.  It is a complicated contradiction of people and places and beliefs.  It is absolutely beautiful. 

In my Hebrew class last night, the teacher asked:  if we lived in Israel, which city would we choose to live in: Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?  The three of us in class and the teacher all said Tel Aviv.  But I realized this morning that wasn’t really a fair choice.  It reminded me of hearing on the Israeli news or reading in the newspapers how Israelis who don’t live in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem take umbrage at the term often used for the rest of the country: “Ha-Periferia.”  The Perhiphery.  Sort of the Israeli version of what we call the “fly-over” states.  People who live in Haifa, in particular, are most rightly offended by this.  Haifa is a real city, a lovely city.  Cleaner and calmer than Tel Aviv.  Little of the craziness and pressure of Jerusalem.   I should have challenged the teacher to include Haifa in the choice.  (Apologies especially to Ran, our tour guide, who lives in Haifa.) 

Now it’s time for some tachlis, some substance.   I might actually have to start at the beginning of the trip now.  But first, ....

Profound Truths

One of the thoughts that the leader of our tour asked us to keep in mind as we began our journey is that the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth.  Nowhere is this truer than in Israel.  Pick a side, or embrace the contradictions, or both. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Israel, Part Two, Musings

Still Zionist After All These Years

Growing up in a classical Reform temple in the ‘60s, I didn’t hear anything about the State of Israel in temple.  I’d heard the term, of course, and wondered how there could be a “State” that wasn’t one of the 50.  While it implied a close relationship between Israel and the United States in my young mind, I knew little else about Israel. 

Then I started getting invited to friend’s bar mitzvahs.  Many of them were held at Temple Israel, a large, conservative congregation, so named because it too was founded in 1948.  At Temple Israel, they wore their Zionism on their sleeves.  They flew the Israeli flag. 

Then the Six-Day War began.  My mother z"l told me that I might not be able to have a party to celebrate my bar mitzvah.  I was confused.  My bar mitzvah was scheduled for over seven months later.  It depends how long the war goes on, my mother said.  We’ll just have to see.  I think she really meant that it depends on if and how the war ends.  She had been a teenager during World War II.  There was a lot on her mind that she wasn’t saying.  But, suddenly, my life was connected to the State of Israel.   

The war ended soon with Israel’s stunning victory.  My awareness and pride grew.  I studied modern Hebrew.  I learned Israeli songs in BBYO.  I visited Israel twice.  Once in 1975 for a three-month college term abroad on a religious kibbutz called Be’erot Yitzchak.  Again in 1987 for a vacation with David. 

The intervening years, especially the last decade, have been disheartening for so many reasons.  I never lost my Zionism; I think I just shelved it in the back of my mind. 

A convergence of circumstances took hold of me this year.  After getting an iPhone in February, I found apps to watch Israeli news, hear Israeli radio, read Israeli newspapers.  I watched the entire season of Kochav Nolad, Israel’s American Idol, on my tiny screen.  My Hebrew came back faster than I imagined.  I signed up for Hebrew class in the spring.  I followed the events of the summer’s social justice movement.  When I heard about the trip sponsored by A Wider Bridge, Keshet, and Nehirim, I knew it was bashert.  I had to go. 

Seeing first hand the tremendous progress Israel has made in LGBT rights, the efforts of the religious LGBT Jews to find their place, the slow but increasingly successful outreach of progressive Judaism to “secular” Israelis, the renewal of a new pioneer movement for the 21st century, even the amazing economic and infrastructure development since I was last there, and many other things, made me tremendously proud.  I hope to write about most of these in subsequent posts, b”h. 

Not to whitewash … or pinkwash, G-d forbid! ;)  (More on that later too.)  One can certainly criticize Israeli government policies.  One can believe that Israel has made many mistakes, even committed sins, over its history.  It’s especially easy with 20/20 hindsight.  But none of that, nothing at all, can convince me that it is a legitimate position to maintain that of all the peoples in the world, Jews are the only ones not entitled to their own nation-state.  The denial of the national rights of the Jews smacks of anti-Semitism, (or anti-Jewish prejudice, if you prefer that term).  Yes, I know there are people of good will, including some Jews and Israelis, who reject Zionism and believe in a one-state solution in which everyone would be equal.  There are people who say that that Jews and Palestinians have much in common and would quickly learn to live together in peace.  I’d like to think so too.  Maybe that day will come.  But in the meantime, there needs to be two states.  Let them learn to live together.  Then we will see how idealistic the future may be.  In the meantime, the Palestinians are stuck with checkpoints and barriers and collective punishment.  I cannot deny that it is oppressive.  But it is a lesser evil than suicide bombers’ blowing up teenagers at a pizza parlor. 

Israel, Part One, Last Day, Airport and Airplane

Seating and Eating and More Eating

Disclaimer:  This is an irreverent, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, take on people’s fervent beliefs.  In no way do I mean any disrespect to those who act on their beliefs.  As long as they don’t hurt others … or interfere with their seat assignments.  In subsequent posts I will write glowing reports of the wonderful religious LGBT people we met. 

“Technical” reasons delay El Al flight, Tel Aviv to New York, from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m.  Boarding is stopped at 12:05 a.m. shortly after it began and the plane emptied.  I’ll skip reporting on the grumbling and the scene and at the counter to rebook connections. 

Scene 1:  Eating

About 2 a.m., we are told that El Al is providing us breakfast in the food court, at the other end of the concourse.  I get there near the front of the line.  (I have my ways.)   The place has big signs saying Kasher Lemahadrin (glatt kosher).  There is much scrutiny by the haredim of the kashrut certificate on the wall.  Some discuss; some stay; some leave.  I help an old lady in line in front of me get a tray and silverware.  She is dressed modestly, but in a relatively modern way.  Though I think she has a wig on.  Is it tznius or old-age fashion?  Hard for me to tell.  As she passes each person working behind the counter, she repeats that she needs lemahadrin.  Each one nods reassuringly, though in that bored manner of teenagers working the graveyard shift.  I start to wonder whether her repeated questioning stems for frumkeit or short-term memory loss.  She asks one of the employees where the kashrut certificate is.  He points to the column on which it is posted, though it’s on the other side.  She seems confused, so I show her where it is.  She goes around to look, but doesn’t spend as much time reading as the men had earlier.  I think she gets back in line.  I don’t remember if she takes the food and eats.  My attention is shot.  It’s almost 3 a.m. and I’m eating another meal of scrambled eggs and salad and not a very good one. 

Scene 2: Seating

Finally on the plane, two rows in front of me, there is consternation with seat assignments.  Apparently, a woman has a seat between two haredi men.  The men are youngish.  The woman is probably in her 60s or so.  She is no Bar Rafaeli.  To the extent I am able to tune into the conversation, it seems that the man who has the window seat is offered a seat in, as they say in Hebrew, “biznez.”  I wanted to blurt out, “Lama lo notnim lagveret lashevet bebiznez?”  Why don’t you let the lady sit in business?  Seems like the easier way to solve the problem.  But I try not to yell on planes, even El Al, and don’t want to antagonize my neighbors.  Besides, maybe the man is a premium frequent traveler and is entitled to the seat.  Maybe he offered to pay the upgrade and I didn’t hear.  Mostly, I guess, it’s just not my problem.  The woman looks PEEVED AS HELL, but keeps quiet. 

The other haredi man, who has the aisle seat, asks the man sitting in the aisle seat in the row between him and me if he would change seats with him.  There are only men in that row.  The man says fine.  I’m glad I’m a row back and he didn’t ask me.  What would I have said?  The woman glares quietly at the haredi man as he packs up his stuff and moves.  He doesn’t notice, of course. 

I cant help but wonder when humiliating a random Jewish woman on an airplane became a Jewish value.  

Scene 3: Eating

More “Jewish food insecurity” when the meals are served. 

The meals are served backwards, for some reason.  We have another breakfast at 3 a.m. Israel time and dinner (pasta with meat sauce or chicken) at 7 a.m. Eastern time. 

The special meals are served first.  The young Israeli woman in my row gets a tzimchoni (vegetarian) and the haredi man in front of me gets a what appears to be a hermetically sealed extra-kosher meal.  He opens up the plastic, takes a look, jumps up, abandons the meal in the galley across the aisle, and retrieves from somewhere a plastic bag, presumably containing his emergency snacks. 

I eventually get my meal, assembled off the food cart by the flight attendant.  I pull out the kosher certificate from under the plate.  Hey, just to be sure, you know?  The inflight caterer “has righteous Kashrut observers under the supervision of Rabbi Moshe Nahshoni and the guidance of the National Kashrut Department of the Chief Rabbinate Israel.”  I guess some people answer to a higher authority than the Chief Rabbi.  G-d, I guess. 

A Scene from the Airport CD Store – The One Thing All Israelis Apparently Agree On

Ben Gurion Airport, late Sunday night even before the flight delay, I wander in and out of the stores to pass the hours until my flight.  The CD store is filled with the musical output of this tiny nation over 60 years.  I’m a slow browser, especially when all the labels are in Hebrew.  After a few minutes, the young store clerk, having the same hippy happy attitude of record store clerks all over the world, but looking like he belongs only here, walks toward me, “Efshar laazor otcha?” (“May I help you?”)  “Stam mistakel,” I say, “Just looking.”  He smiles. 

As I wonder how long I can linger without looking suspicious, or stupid, I hear a woman’s voice, in American English, asking the clerk for a recommendation for good Israeli pop music.  My interest is piqued.  I think back to the concert I attended recently at Strathmore.  The featured American singer told the story of how she met the Israeli singer/songwriter with whom she was appearing.  On vacation in Israel, she asked everyone she met to tell her who they thought was the most innovative musical artist in Israel.  Everyone gave her the same answer, so she arranged to meet him, and their collaboration began. 

I was intrigued.  Would the music store clerk give the same answer?  He picked out a CD from the new releases rack.  I heard him make a comparison to Coldplay.  I hesitated.  Who could that be?  I’ve heard Coldplay, but ….  I make my way slowly toward where they are standing in time to see him hand a 3-CD set to the woman.  YES!  I exclaimed in my head.  Of course.  Everyone in Israel agrees! On this one thing anyway.  I burst out in English, addressing the woman.  “Yes, you have to buy that.  You will love it.”  The clerk felt compelled to tell the woman I did not work there.  “I saw them in concert,” I continued.  It was the best concert I ever saw.”  The clerk offered to put the CD on for her to hear. 

The music starts: 
מה הזמן מסמן לי / זה הכל שאריות של החיים / ולחיות את הרגע / להתחיל לאסוף את השברים

“What is time telling me? / It’s all scraps of life / And to live the moment / To begin collecting the shards / Maybe I will go out more / Start to speed up a bit / Start to get along / And make some noise / Maybe a different place / A more exciting place / Start to shake things up / And make them right again.” 

The Idan Raichel Project.  Betach!  Of course.  The same answer India.Arie told us at the concert that she got from everyone when she was in Israel. 

The American woman buys the CD.  I tell her good choice and assure her once again that I don’t work there.  Not sure why I said that.  I don’t think I look like I work in a record store.

Check out this video of another Idan Raichel Project song, Milim Yafot Mei Eleh (Nicer Words Than These):  FYI:  Idan is the Ashkenazi in dreadlocks.  The other singers are Ravid Kahalani, who is Yemenite; Cabra Casay, an Ethiopian born in the refugee camps in Sudan; and Maya Avraham, who is of Indian origin.  The musicians are from all over the world.