Want to know when I post?
Add yourself to my "followers" list -- scroll down and look on the right side of the screen. Or, drop me an email at ilana@post.harvard.edu and ask me to add you to my alerts list. You'll get an email each time I post.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Last week, I had a miscarriage.

That information seems maybe too personal to be sharing on a website.  But the experience of this pregnancy and its spontaneous termination taught me something important about what it means to live in America, and what it means to live in Israel, and that's why I'm sharing it.

A year ago, my husband and I were satisfied with the size of our family.  Ours is the imagined ideal, minus the dog:  one boy, one girl, a mother and a father.  Our kids are at a perfect age: young enough to need us, but not every minute.  Why would we want to mess that up with diapers, night feedings, choking hazards, car seats, etc., etc., etc. -- not to mention the risks of complications?  Besides, the world's population topped 7 billion a few weeks ago.  7 billion!  More people are alive today than the total of all people who have ever died.  This exponential growth rate cannot continue, and even replacing ourselves is really a luxury.

Then, we spent a year in Israel.  Israel has one of the highest birth rates of any western country: 2.97 per woman.  In Jerusalem, where we were staying, the average family has 4.5 children!  Our family of one lovely boy and one lovely girl felt paltry there.  Over time we met a few small families like ours -- but every single one of them had suffered fertility problems.  It seemed that small families by choice did not exist.

We loved the family atmosphere in Jerusalem.  Our five year old daughter could leave our apartment and walk all by herself to the apartments of any of three of friends.  For the first time, we felt comfortable leaving our son alone -- we knew if he got into trouble, he could run to any of 10 different neighbors for help.  The kids could walk to a local park by themselves, and even to the closest makolet (little grocery store), where they would greet the owner by name and he would give them their purchases on credit.

As an American, my gut assumption is that the large size of Israeli families is a result of Israel's religious culture.  Certainly that explains why Jerusalem, the most religious of Israel's large cities, has an especially high birth rate.  Many an American has returned home from an extended stay in Jerusalem feeling more devout, and more pregnant, than she was when she left.

But what is that religious experience that drives fertility?  And why, judging by my husband's physics colleagues, are secular Israelis more family-oriented than their American counterparts?  A friend of ours who did almost the same thing we did said to me: "Our youngest was conceived in Israel, where all things seemed possible."  This friend is not religiously observant, and his statement was not inspired by tradition.  All things seemed possible.

In Israel, life and death are closer together.  You don't have to be religious to feel that.  You simply have to walk into a shopping mall and open your bag for inspection, and realize that in the not-so-distant past people came to Israeli shopping malls equipped with explosives.  Far more importantly, Israeli children enter adulthood by way of the army, where they cannot help but confront their mortality.

When you realize that life is fleeting, all things really are possible.  Nothing is guaranteed, and everything is possible.  You must cast your bread as best you can, as often as you can, and hope it lands well.

My very first pregnancy, over ten years ago, ended in miscarriage.  I was 29 years old, but an American 29 year old -- young and immortal.  I wanted to have my babies when I wanted to have my babies, and I was not interested in accepting what nature had to offer.  That miscarriage was a dreadful shock.

This last pregnancy was an Israeli one, conceived under the lingering influence of the Israeli air:  religious, optimistic, and aware of my mortality.   Its termination was disappointing, but not a shock.

But the aftermath -- the doctor's visits, the ultrasounds, the medications --  jolted me back to American soil, where all things do not seem possible; where life seems under our control, and possibilities and impossibilities are determined by our human capacities; where raising children is hard, and careers and family are in competition, and a family of two healthy children (baruch Hashem and kein ayin hara!) seems perfect.

Perhaps by coincidence, and perhaps not, I offered a dvar torah at my shul two weeks ago that touched on very similar topics (though at the time I thought my pregnancy was healthy).  If you would like to read the dvar torah email me at ilana@post.harvard.edu 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Get Up and Walk the Land

Shortly before we left  Palo Alto to spend a year in Israel, I attended a discussion at the Oshmann Family JCC in Palo Alto with a leader of the Israeli environmentalist movement.  She was remarkably deferential to American environmentalists, seeing Israel as trailing in America's footsteps.

It is true, on a public policy level Israelis are far less green than Americans.  But on the level of local communities and personal practices, I'm not so sure.

Most of the Israelis I know line-dry their clothes.  Only in the dead of winter do they resort to clothes driers.   While in Israel, I did the same.  Sure, our clothes were a little more stiff and wrinkled, but everyone was doing it!   I had the best of intention of continuing with line-drying in Palo Alto, but it's harder than you think to purchase a reasonable drying rack in American hardware stores.  And our clothes drier here is a heck of a lot more powerful than the one we had in Jerusalem.  And, I confess, don't underestimate peer pressure.

Large cars are very uncommon in Israel.   Big families crowd into compacts -- baby in the front seat, four kids crammed into the back.  It may be a little more dangerous in the short run, but in the long run our children will all inherit a healthier planet as a result.  Admittedly, these choices may be driven by poverty rather than ideology, but does it ultimately matter?

Many years ago, I briefly dated an Orthodox man who, like me, had spent extended time in Israel.  He was surprised when I told him that one of my greatest pleasures in life is hiking in our (American) National Parks.  He said: "I only think of hiking as something to do in Israel, as in קום התהלך בארץ", get up and walk the land (Genesis 13:17) -- quoting God's words of assurance to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Israel.  

Israelis are very connected to their land.  On a mythological level, God's promise has come true, though perhaps not in the ways our ancestors might have envisioned it: every place Abraham tread is now steeped in meaning for his descendants.  A day hike in Ein Gedi  would be incomplete without reading the stories of the future king David's escapes from King Saul; a day hike in the Gilboa requires a retelling of Saul and Jonathan's deaths on the mountain.

Israel is also a small country, where farms and nature preserves and cities are packed close together.  And the Zionist ideology ennobles the working of the land: החלוץ נאמן לעבודה, "the pioneer is loyal to his work."   For all these reasons, Israeli children all over the country do far more hiking, and have far more direct contact with commercial farms, than my own kids ever had in America.

Fifteen years ago, after a visit to the chicken coop of an Israeli friend's farm, I swore from then on to buy only free-range eggs.  Of course, we all know that farm chickens live their lives in boxes barely larger than their bodies.  But it's one thing to read about it, another thing to see it.  And how many American suburbanites actually get to visit a farm like that?

This past year, on a visit to our cousin's kibbutz, my daughter and I paid our regular visit to their dairy farm.  The kibbutz is one of the supplier's of Tenuva, a large-scale dairy company.  In the past, nothing about the dairy was particularly disturbing.  The cow's don't exactly live luxuriously, but they do not seem mistreated either.  This time, we happened to witness the final 20 minutes of a birthing.  That entire time, the mother's sides were heaving with exertion but not a sound uttered for her lips.  Her silence was almost frightening, and my daughter and I were both swept up in empathy with this laboring mother.  Finally, with a tremendous push from the mother, out came the calf,  collapsed in a heap in the dirt.  The calf seemed blue and lifeless, but soon life's colors came into her face and we saw she was fine.  Eventually, the supervisor on duty came into the pen to see how the birth was progressing. He was pleased to see a healthy calf, and then -- he gave the mother a solid kick in her side with his heavy farm boot.  The mother shuddered.
"Why did you do that?"  I almost cried.
"She needs to start licking the calf," he said.  He gave the mother another hard kick, and then left the pen.  Five minutes later, in her own good time, the mother turned around and started licking her calf.  Ten minutes after that, the supervisor returned with a cage on wheels, hauled off the calf, and mother and baby never saw each other again.

Nowadays, I only buy free range eggs and I don't eat beef.  I've also mostly switched from dairy milk to soy.

And if one of these days you start noticing my clothes have become more wrinkled, you'll know why.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Torah sometimes refers to Sukkot simply as חג, holiday, because it is the holiday -- the day of ultimate celebration.  On Yom Kippur we sob our hearts out, and on sukkot we feel the release that comes after the flood.

Sukkot is supposed to be a holiday of singing and dancing.  But today, I was sobbing with joy.
 זה היום עשה ה', נגילה ונשמחה בו
"This is the day God made, we will rejoice and be happy on this day!"   For this is the day Gilad Shalit returns home to Israel.

The Egyptians required a televised interview of him before releasing him to Israel.  Watching this young man's composure through heartless questions about his feelings during captivity, I think the state of Israel may have found a future leader.

אבן מאסו הבונים היתה לראש פינה
"The stone that the builder's despised has become the cornerstone."

Monday, October 3, 2011

Shop Vac

Jonathan Coulton  wrote a powerful song, Shop Vac.  Watch this video clip.  Jarrett Heather's animation is outstanding, and besides you will need it to appreciate this blog entry.

Coulton thought his song was about "suburban angst" -- he said so in a different video clip.  Having just returned from the most passionate city in the world to the lawns and houses of Palo Alto, I can relate.  

But guess what?  I know people who live in Jerusalem, and others in New York City, who feel much as Coulton describes, but they believe their escape is to the suburbs.  They may be right, and Coulton may be right, too.  Where you live can strongly impact your happiness.  

On the other hand, it is also very easy to blame something outside of ourselves for our inner miseries.

One of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs describes similar unhappiness, but maybe with a little more honesty.  Listen to "Dangling Conversation" here.

Relationships are hard, much harder than most of us imagine when we embark on them.  Paul Simon complains, "I only kiss your shadow, I cannot feel your hand."  To reach past his lover's shadow and feel her hand, he must first reach through his own shadows and confront whatever ugliness is there.  Most of us cannot bear the pain of that confrontation, and so instead we run to the basement and the Shop Vac, or the coffee shop and Robert Frost.

Perhaps the wife nags and nags: about the clothes he leaves lying on the floor (does he assume she'll pick them up?), his failure to be home in time for dinner, his failure to notice anything nice about her.  Of course he doesn't notice; he doesn't hear her.  He does not want to confront his own selfishness, and certainly not his own sexism.  (Sexism was his parents' problem, not his!)

Perhaps the husband has been stonewalling her for years.  What is wrong with him?   Why can't he relate!?  But has she looked in the mirror and seen the anger smoldering inside?  Has she seen the ugliness of her anger, and how he flees from it?  Easier not to look. Easier to retreat quietly, upstairs to the TV, or to Emily Dickinson.

The problem is suburbia.  The problem is the city.  The problem is all the fake friends (suggests Coulton): as we get older, sincerity becomes harder and harder to find.  But taking a sincere look at our own darkness  -- our anger, our depression, our greed, our cruelty -- is too hard for most of us.

On Yom Kippur, we stop hiding behind suburbia.  We call it as it is:  חטאנו, we have sinned.  Not "he", not "she", not "them".  We, Us, I have sinned.  Yes, they have sinned too.  But there's nothing I can do to change that.  I can only change who I am.

When we face our shadows, and admit our own role in getting us to where we are and where we want to be, an amazing thing happens.

ויאמר ה', סלחתי כדברך
God said: I have already forgiven, just as you spoke. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Future

This is the seventh and final post in a series that build on each other. Each post of the series can stand on its own, but if you want to read them in order you can use these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid  4. The Security Wall  5. Ethnic Struggle  6. Borders

Professor Johnny Aumann has a long white beard, sparkling eyes, and a warm smile.  He is an old friend of my parents, and -- incidentally -- a Nobel prize winner in economics.  Johnny once had five children, each one brilliant and kind, until his son Shlomo -- whose name derives from the same root as shalom or salaam -- was killed in 1982 while serving the Israeli army in Lebanon.  For as long as I can remember, an 8x10 photo of Shlomo's smiling face has been sitting on the piano as the centerpiece in the Aumann's living room.  

Since receiving his Nobel prize in 2005, Johnny has been speaking publicly on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he has become known for his right-wing views.  I can remember a conversation already at least fifteen years ago, in which he told us that the conflict with the Arabs will never end.  We must keep fighting and accept our losses, for that is the cost of living in Israel.  Those who cannot stomach the cost should leave, he said. 

Johnny's views seemed extreme to me at the time, and deeply depressing.  I find them no less depressing today, but unfortunately they are no longer extreme.  Most Israelis seem to have given up hope of achieving peace with the Palestinians.  Many who once saw themselves as lefties have now moved to the right.  They see no choice but to continue in this struggle indefinitely.  For the first time in history, Israel's coalition government is composed exclusively of right-wing parties.  And I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu's angry reaction to President Obama back in May reflected the fatalist attitude of Israelis in general -- the feeling that we have no options left, but must put our heads down and keep fighting.

But the left has not disappeared entirely, and I have been privileged this year to meet a different kind of leftist from those I know back in America.  On the subject of Israel, left-leaning American Jews often seem motivated by shame. "My people are not living up to my standards," one rabbinical student said to me.  Jewish Israelis (with some notable exceptions) are committed to Israel in a much deeper way.  They put their lives at risk serving in the army.  They have placed their lots here, and their criticisms of Israel's right-wing government emerges not from a place of shame, but from a conviction that Israel's future demands peace.  

Both President Obama and President Shimon Peres have recently warned that the conflict cannot continue indefinitely.  A citizenship of 7 million cannot sustainably control 2.4 million people who are not citizens.  Eventually, God forbid, if the conflict cannot be resolved the Jewish state may disappear, either in an explosion or by the slow, painful crumbling of her resources.

The price of the fight is extremely high.  

My son spent his third grade year in an Israeli public school, and he was miserable.  The children spend hours each day at their desks copying from the blackboards, because the teachers have an inadequate photocopying budget.  Israel pours so much money into defense, too little is left for education.  (Interestingly, Israel's socialized medicine is actually quite good, perhaps because doctors' salaries are extraordinarily low -- and yet many of the best Israeli students continue to choose medicine.)  Even more so, my son was overwhelmed by the classroom culture: loud and aggressive, a poorly controlled microcosm of the worst of Israeli culture.  The moral costs of the conflict are higher yet than the financial ones, as 18 year old boys are trained to kill, and then live out their lives -- marrying, raising children -- with the psychological impact of those experiences. 

Golda Meir famously said in 1969: "When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons."  I wonder how many Isarelis still feel that way?   
During each of the so-called pilgrimage holidays -- Pesach (Passover), Shavuot and Sukkot -- thousands of Jews flock to the Western Wall to remember the Holy Temple that once stood there.   The municipality sets up a stage in the square just outside the Old City, and when I was there during Pesach a boys' choir was singing traditional Hebrew songs over loud amplifiers.  As I arrived on the scene, they were bellowing out הקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם, The Holy One saves us from their hands.  I cringed, conscious of the Arab vendors standing 50 feet away, trying to make a living off of the seeded bagels they sell from pushcarts at Jaffa gate.   Israel still has dangerous enemies.  Gilad Shalit's family knows this with excruciating certainly.  But the words of that song were written to describe a different kind of enemy: powerful kings and nobility that tossed Jews about like so many chips on a playing board, or armed mobs that could descend without warning on a defenseless shtetl.  That song, and quite a few like it, seem deeply inappropriate amidst the complex reality of Jerusalem.

When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, we entered a new stage as a people.  On that day, Moses and Miriam lead us in creating a new song, שירה חדשה שבחו גאולים לשמך על שפת הים.  

I believe we have again entered a new stage.  We have been redeemed from exile, we are back in our own land, under our own rule.  If the peace with Egypt and Jordan is a cold one, it is nonetheless peace and full-scale war is very unlikely.

It is time to leave behind the victim mentality.  It is time also to leave behind the aggressive mentality that is the immediate backlash to it.  It is again time for a new song.  

When Yitshak Rabin zt"l was shot, in his pocket  were the words to this song: 

Allow the sun to penetrate                          תנו לשמש לחדור 
Through the flowers                                           מבעד לפרחים
Don't look back                                               אל תביטו לאחור
Let go of those departed                                   הניחו להולכים

Lift your eyes with hope                             שאו עיניים בתקווה
Not through the rifles' sights                              לא דרך כוונות
Sing a song for love                                       שירו שיר לאהבה
And not for wars                                                  ולא למלחמות

Don't say the day will come                         אל תגידו יום יבוא
Bring on that day -                                             הביאו את היום
Because it is not a dream -                              כי לא חלום הוא
And in all the city squares                                  ובכל הכיכרות
Cheer only for peace!                                      תעירו רק לשלום

Thursday, August 11, 2011


This is the sixth in a series of posts that build on each other. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid  4. The Security Wall  5. Ethnic Struggle

My landlady has been a good friend to Sayid for many years – in that uneven way that I was his friend this year.  In response to my recent blog posts, she shared with me a piece of his story that shifts my perspective.  When the Palestinian Authority first became established as a semi-autonomous government, civil service jobs were available to uneducated people like Sayid.  My landlady encouraged Sayid to apply for these jobs, but he refused.  The pay was too low.  Sayid, you see, has an entrance visa for Israel because he brings his daughter for treatments at Hadassah Hospital.  That entrance visa must have seemed like a lucky lottery ticket.  How could he possibly waste such a gift?  But that lottery ticket turned out to have been fool’s gold.  The bus rides to Jerusalem cost Sayid what would be the equivalent of a half-day’s wages if he were working on the West Bank, and many days he arrives to find no work waiting for him.  Now poor Sayid is trapped in his mistake.  The civil service jobs are gone, and he still has seven mouths to feed.

I am told that Ramallah is a modern town, with cafes and smoothie bars and an educated public.  But if Ramallah is the capital of Palestine, it is the capital of a third world country; for Sayid’s village, and hundreds of others like his, are truly third world.  It’s not just that the wages are so low and residents live in poverty.  The culture is also from another era.   Sayid once tried to explain to me that West Bank Palestinians are more progressive than their Jordanian counterparts.  For example, Palestinians no longer allow גואלי הדם, blood vengeance.  I was familiar with the term “blood vengeance” from studies of Bible and Talmud, but I was shocked to learn that it is still in practice today, if not in Palestine then in Jordan.  But no, if a murder occurs in Palestine, the murderer is brought to justice in court rather than left to the hands of the victim’s family.  In fact, Sayid said, it happened recently in their village that a young woman fell in love with a young man and her uncle did not approve of the match.  The uncle drowned the girl, and the courts gave him only ten years in prison.  The girl’s family did not pursue the uncle with violence, but instead they are pushing for a new trial and a longer sentence.  They showed this restraint despite the fact that an autopsy revealed the girl to be a virgin.  By implication, her virginity somehow made the crime more heinous.

As Americans know from our relationship with Mexico, first world and third world countries do not make easy neighbors. 

On the third world side of the border: poverty is hard enough, but living in poverty with an awareness of another possibility must be excruciating.  That first world temptation drives people to tremendous risk -- crossing through scorching desert and dodging patrolmen's guns to live as an illegal alien in a country that doesn't want you, or turning down low-paid work on your side of the green line in order to walk the streets in hopes of higher-paid work on the other side.

On the first world side of the border: angst about sealing that border, and about controlling the thousands who leak across anyway, can drive a country into conniptions.  

But in the Palestinian territories, first and third world are tossed together like cucumbers and tomatoes in one Mediterranean salad.

When I first saw a color-coded map of Israel indicating Palestinian- and Israeli-controlled areas, I gasped at what I had known and not really known.  How to draw a reasonable border with this impossibly intermixed map?   

The naive answer seems to be: don’t draw a border.  The peoples are too mixed together, make it a free country for all.  But remember that Palestine was a third world region before the state of Israel arrived on the scene, and third world does not become first world overnight.  Equality in politics does not automatically bring equality where it really matters, and where the real resentment brews: education, earning potential, vision, and respect.  Nor will the stamp of citizenship erase the ethnic tensions I described in my last post.  I fear that removing borders will only increase the violence, both of Arabs towards Jews and of Jews towards Arabs.

What's more, neither side is particularly interested in this solution.  The Palestinian leadership would be violently opposed to Israel annexing their territories.  And for most Israelis, the thought of making their national elections vulnerable to another 2.4 million voting Arabs is unthinkable.  As a percentage of the population, this would be equivalent to the United States granting U.S. citizenship to the entire population of Mexico.

Secular Israelis feel they are fighting a two front battle, and their frustration with ultra-Orthodox Jews often outweighs any frustration they feel towards Palestinians.  The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim -- literally, those who tremble -- intentionally live in the past.  In a typical Haredi boys' school, all secular education ends in the fourth grade.  Girls receive somewhat more secular education, in part because they are banned from the holy subjects most valued by their communities, and in part because many of them will need to earn a living to support their husbands’ Torah study. Israel's parliamentary government has a proportional representation system, which gives organized minorities an inordinate amount of political power.  As a result, the Haredi rabbinate has managed to retain control of all marriage and divorce in Israel, subjecting families to a deeply sexist system that should have been outdated 100 years ago.

The contrast with the Israel I love is striking.  My husband spent the year visiting at the Weizmann Institute of Science, a premier research center that welcomes graduate students, post-docs and visiting faculty from around the globe.  In my husband’s field of semiconductor nanoelectronics, the Weizmann has perhaps the best facilities in the world.  The Hebrew University is the world’s center for critical analysis of Jewish sacred texts, and Israel's archeology is unsurpassed.  Tel Aviv has a thriving gay community.  One of my good friends this year, a lesbian and an American citizen, moved to Israel ten years ago because she and her wife – who is not an American citizen -- could not live together in America.  In Israel they have full rights of domestic partnership (albeit not recognized as a marriage by the Haredi family courts -- but really, keeping the Haredi courts out of your marriage is usually a good thing!) and her wife was able to adopt the children she bore.

At ~10% of the population and rising rapidly, the Haredim are a serious internal problem.  But the Palestinians are a far more serious problem for Israel, and they are neither internal nor external.  Even in areas where Palestinians have some autonomy, like Ramallah and Gaza, contiguous regions are too small to support a real, independent government or economy.  For anything but the most local matters they are under Israeli rule. 

Neither solution, one state or two, is a simple one.  And every time I think I understand something about Israel or Palestine, I discover a new piece of information that exposes a whole new layer of the story.  But I believe an essential element in finding a resolution is to fully explore the complexity. 

As with any complex problem, the way out is never easy.  The solution will require compromise, even sacrifice and, let's face it, some serious unpleasantness.  But I believe Israel and the Palestinians will find a solution, and in the long run peace and prosperity will emerge for all the inhabitants of this beloved land.    

To continue to the next and final post in the series, click here

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


In my last post, I wrote "Unlike the West Bank, east Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in 1967, but the people living there -- as a protective measure -- were not granted citizenship.  Instead, they are "permanent residents"."   An anonymous commenter noted I was mistaken, and I have since confirmed my mistake with political science professor Jonathan Rynhold of Bar Ilan University.  Apparently, the residents of east Jerusalem were offered citizenship after the annexation, but only 5% accepted it. 

I made my mistake through misreading a report by the ACRI -- mainly because I was reading too quickly, but also the report was written in a way that it could be misread.   Overall, this 20-page report by the ACRI tells of a sorry state in east Jerusalem.  I have no doubt that the suffering they describe is real, that Israeli policies contribute to that suffering, and that Israel should be working to alleviate it.  On the other hand, the implication throughout the report is that the suffering in east Jerusalem is primarily Israel's fault, and that implication is incorrect.  As I have said many times, this is a conflict with two sides to it.  Unfortunately, the temptation is strong to villainize one side and share only the perspective of the other.

Here is the relevant excerpt from the ACRI's report.  I have underlined the sentence that I misread (bolding is theirs).  In their defense, the current statement on the ACRI's website is much less misleading:
Following the Six Day War and the Israeli annexation, East Jerusalem residents were given the civil status of "permanent residents" of Israel. As such, the primary right they were granted was the right to live and work in Israel without the need for special permits. Permanent residents are also entitled to social rights according to the National Insurance Law, health insurance, and the right to vote in municipal (but not national) elections. Permanent residency status, unlike citizenship, is passed on to the children of residents only under certain conditions. A permanent resident who marries someone who is neither a permanent resident nor a citizen of Israel must apply for family unification on behalf of his or her spouse. In reality, Israel treats the residents of East Jerusalem as foreigners whose status can be revoked as a matter of course. These residents are forced to repeatedly prove their permanent residency status in the city to the Ministry of the Interior and the National Insurance Institute, which conduct investigations and inquiries designed to gather evidence for annulling this status. Residency status is at times revoked arbitrarily, with no opportunity for appeal, and with no notification to the resident, who learns of the action only when applying for services. Between 1967 and 2008 the Ministry of the Interior revoked the status of over 13,000 residents. Half of these revocations occurred between 2006 and 2008. The sharp rise in revocation of residency status was touted as an illustration of “improvement in work procedures and proper monitoring by the ministry”. In other words, according to the ministry, “improvement” does not mean enhancing the level of service provided for the welfare of the residents, but rather trapping in its net as many Palestinians as possible and condemning them to the State’s policy of revocation of residency.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Ethnic Struggle

This is the fifth in a series of posts that build on each other. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid  4. The Security Wall

"(M)an was created from the dust of a single spot.  Man is committed to one locus. . . (H)e is a rooted being, not cosmopolitan but provincial, a villager who belongs to the soil that fed him as a child and to the little world into which he was born. . . Yes, man may roam along the charted and uncharted lanes of the universe, he may reach for the skies.  Yet the traveler, the adventurer out to conquer infinity, will surely return home." (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Majesty and Humility.)

These words of Rav Soloveitchick pull at me as a description of loving parents might pull at an orphan, because I have no one locus I call home.  My grandmother was born in Warsaw, my mother in New York.  I am from Chicago, my children are Californians.  The Jewish nightmare of fleeing from country to country in search of safety has morphed into the American dream of "Go West young man" to Stanford, or east to the Ivies, or mid-west or north or south or wherever opportunity calls.  But still we are unrooted.  The street names in my California neighborhood are exotic to me, and though the landscape is spectacular I am a transplant in it.

לבי במזרח ואנכי בסוף מערב
איך אטעמה את אשר אכל ואיך יערב
My heart is in the east and I am at the end of the west.
How can I taste what I eat and how can it be sweet? (Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, 12th C., Spain)
Israel is aglow with ethnic fire.  The colors are brighter here, the tastes crisper, I feel more alive in Israel than in any other place I have lived.  This year, I have been walking the streets the prophets walked, living outside the walls through which Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai was smuggled in a coffin to plead for a remnant of Israel.  My backdrop has been the same hills and valleys that Maimonides saw in the final stage of his life.  If I should forget for a moment who I am, the street names remind me, the songs on the radio and in the mouths of my own kids, the language itself.

But there is a dark side to this beauty.  Because just as joy must be outlined by sorrow, so our ethnic identities are defined in part by who we are not -- Jew, not Arab.

I recently asked Dr. Avivah Zornberg why our tradition associates each of the patriarchs with the trait that seems most lacking in him:  Abraham, who mounted his son on an altar, is classically associated with kindness, Isaac with strength, Jacob with truth.  Avivah explained that these are not the traits the patriarchs lacked, they are the traits they engaged with most intensely.  In fact, she has seen over and over that a person's most intense trait will reveal itself in complex ways, now as a burning presence and then as a striking absent, now as a great strength and then as a great failing.

If what Avivah said is true for individuals, I believe it is true for nations as well.  The Jewish passion that makes Israel so beautiful is also her greatest moral challenge.  An example is the advertising campaign I criticized in a previous post: "A Palestinian state is a disaster for the Jews".  I've seen bumper stickers and graffiti with much more explicit statements of Jewish elitism, and chance comments from individuals that reveal a deep hatred of Arabs.  (For example, about shopping in Arab-owned stores: "I don't want to give them any money if I don't have to.")  But the most blatant mainstream example came home with my son from school.

The standard third grade literature curriculum in Israeli public schools is based on a book called פתחו את השער (Translation: Open the Gate.)  It includes some beautiful pieces, but most are banal stereotypes of immigrant groups in Israel.  The elderly American couple invites the neighborhood children in for ice-cream.  The Russian girl bursts into tears at her friend's Seder, as she recalls loved ones back in Russia who are still refuseniks.  The book also includes a traditional Yemenite story, about a Jewish jeweler whose Arab neighbor entrusts him with a ring to repair.  The Arab then sneaks into the Jew's house at night and steals his own ring, spitefully hoping to frame the Jew.  The Arab tosses the ring in the ocean, and a fish swallows it.  A few days later the fish is caught by a fisherman, and the jeweler happens to buy the fish for his Shabbat dinner.  He discovers the ring inside the body of the fish, and is able to repair it and return it on time to the Arab villain.  When my son's class read this story, the teacher provided homework that included a chart in which the children were to compare the characteristics of the Jew and the Arab.

Let's be clear. Jews are not the only Middle Easterners grappling with the power, beauty and danger of ethnic pride.  Such feelings are the emotional bread and butter of the region.  In June our family vacationed in Petra, Jordan, where the locals readily identify one another as coming from Syrian, Bedouin, or (in some parts of the country) Palestinian or Groznian extraction.  They were equally quick to identify us as Jews, despite our attempts to hide our kippot under sun hats. "We are two brothers of the same father," one vendor told my husband; and more than one local told us they hate Palestinians, mistakenly assuming we would share their hatred.

Back on the other side of the Jordan, Palestinian textbooks have been notoriously severe in their anti-Jewish rhetoric, mixing religious and violent language into accounts of modern history. The Palestinian Authority issued new textbooks in 2006 that are apparently improved over the older books, which had originated in Egypt and Jordan.  But the Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) writes even of the newer textbooks: "PMW has found that the new 12th grade Palestinian schoolbooks make no attempt to educate for peace and coexistence with Israel. Indeed, the opposite is true: The teachings repeatedly reject Israel's right to exist, present the conflict as a religious battle for Islam, teach Israel’s founding as imperialism, and actively portray a picture of the Middle East, both verbally and visually, in which Israel does not exist at all."  Other groups have pointed out that Israeli textbooks mirror the Palestinian ones, making no references to Palestinians or their history in this land, and using religious language to claim an inalienable Jewish right to the land.  When you are taught from birth that God promised this land to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it becomes very hard to see it as belonging to any people but yours. Clearly this is an ethnic struggle with two sides to it.

הלואי, if only it were a struggle that began and ended with textbooks.  I don't believe there's a Jew born in Israel who has not had a personal friend or acquaintance killed by an Arab.  Nor is there a Palestinian who has not had friends killed by Jews.  Such experiences imprint on the soul, and are even harder to undo than the rhetoric of childhood.

It did not have to be this way.  The Torah includes powerful messages about co-existence and peace and the essential value of every human being as created in the image of God.  These messages could have formed the foundational ethic guiding Israeli's interactions with the Arabs that share their land.  But let's not forget, the day after Ben-Gurion declared Israel an independent state, five Arab powers  swarmed across the border in an attempt to drive the Jews into the ocean.  They tried again in 1967, and again in 1973.  Since 1973 Israel's larger neighbors have withdrawn from direct conflict, but still rockets and ammunition are pouring in through Egypt to Gaza with "Jew" as their final delivery address.  Once caught in this ongoing, violent conflict, too many Israelis find themselves emphasizing a different ethic, for the Torah contains plenty of fuel for Jewish elitism as well.

On many levels, some real and some perceived, Israel is still at war, and government policies reflect those feelings.  I already described the sorry situation at the security checkpoints.  The situation in east Jerusalem is even more striking.  Unlike the West Bank, east Jerusalem was annexed by Israel in 1967, but the people living there -- as a protective measure -- were not granted citizenship.  (Note: this statement is misleading, please see my correction.) Instead, they are "permanent residents"; they have the right to vote in municipal elections but not national ones, and their status can be revoked at any time, seemingly arbitrarily, leaving them suddenly homeless and unable to earn a living.  Nonetheless, the population in east Jerusalem has grown by an astounding 450% since 1967.  This sharp population rise feels very threatening to many Israelis.  According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Jerusalem municipality has responded with unreasonable zoning laws, home demolitions, and refusal to issue new building permits.  As a result, east Jerusalem is overcrowded, with a population density nearly twice that of west Jerusalem.  65% of east Jerusalem residents live in poverty.  Approximately 160,000 Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have no suitable and legal connection to the water network, and 50 kilometers of sewage lines are lacking.  East Jerusalem is short approximately 1,000 classrooms in their schools, contributing to a school drop-out rate of 50%.  The ACRI sees the residents of east Jerusalem as the victims of a systematic policy of discrimination, intended to limit the Arab presence in Jerusalem and secure a Jewish majority.

Yet layered in with all this fear and hatred are the Jewish prayers of hope that sustained us -- as a distinct ethnic group -- through centuries of oppression.  For a millennium and a half at least, devout Jews have been reciting the same formula three time a day.  "Blessed are You Ado-nai, redeemer of Israel . . .Blast on a great shofar, and set up a sign to gather in our exiles . . . Restore our leadership . . Destroy all wickedness . . . Place trust in the righteous . . . Return Your presence to Jerusalem, You who will build Jerusalem . . . Plant the roots of David's kingdom. . . May our eyes see Your return to Zion. . .Blessed are You, who blesses His people Israel with peace."  בשוב ה' את שיבת ציון היינו כחולמים  -- It seems a dream, that these words are coming true even as we continue to recite them.

Israel is a country built by refugees: from the Holocaust in Europe, from generations of humiliation as dhimmi in Arabia, and from complete vulnerability when even the dhimma relationship collapsed under the Ottomans;  from famine and intolerance in Ethiopia; from communism and deadly anti-semitism in Russia; and from every corner of the world where Jews resided.  The founding dream of Israel is that all Jews should finally have a secure place to call home.  I believe we deserve that.

As America was founded on the myth that "all men are created equal", so Israel was founded on the Law of Return -- a profoundly beautiful, idealistic law, that discriminates based on ethnicity.    But is that not so often the case, of people and of countries?  The fires that burn hottest and ugliest inside of us are the same fires that make us most beautiful.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Security Wall

This is the third in a series of posts about politics in Israel. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth   3. Sayid

It seems to me Sayid has another option: he could apply for a work permit.  The upfront costs of a work permit would be insurmountable for Sayid himself --  the equivalent of two months labor on a six month work permit.  But employers are willing to pay the costs, and then withhold part of the paycheck until they are paid off.  The take-home pay is very, very low, but at least it is reliable.  

One day, I was walking past a construction site when Sayid called my cell phone asking if I had work for him.  I had nothing to offer, but the construction site gave me an idea.  I screwed up my courage, approached one of the workers, and asked if they needed another set of hands. I was quickly introduced to the foreman, a Christian Arab named Rasmi.  Rasmi told me to send Sayid to him, he'd be happy to put him to work. 

Since then, Rasmi and I have been friendly, greeting each other every morning as I walk past his construction site.  Once one of his workers offered me a cookie from the breakfast they were sharing.

But Sayid could not work anything out with Rasmi.  I am certainly many factors contributed, and I only know a few them.  I will tell you about one of the complications, which has to do with the Security Wall, also known as the Separation Barrier between the Palestinian territories and Israel proper.

To avoid the heat of the day, construction work starts at 7AM.  In order to get across the security border to arrive at work on time, Sayid would need to leave his house at 4AM, to join the crowds of Palestinian workers lining up to get across.  As people pass through one at a time, they are inspected and subjected to verbal humiliation.  And no surprise.  Most of the checkpoints are manned by 20 year old kids wearing guns.

Israel should do better than this.  In addition to training checkpoint guards to identify terrorists, they should also be training them to show respect to the people legitimately passing through.  They should increase the number of people manning the checkpoints, to be able to process workers faster.  And they should lower the cost of work permits, so that people who are already living on the edge are not deprived of a third of their pay check.  A little respect for the dignity of Palestinian people would go a long way towards promoting peace.

On the other side -- and yes, there is always another side in this conflict -- I am grateful for the security wall.

My husband and I lived in Israel for a year in 1995-96, when Yitshak Rabin was assassinated.  That year, approximately 40 people were killed in terror attacks, mostly by suicide bombers.  These attacks were among the most evil expressions of the human soul, to  strap explosives onto the body of a 20 year old child and send him into a crowd.

Though the numbers of people killed in such attacks were small compared to the numbers killed in car accidents, the attacks were very successful in their aim of creating terror.  With constant news stories about bus bombings, I avoided riding buses the entire year, sticking to taxis instead.

Once Israel built the security wall, terror attacks dropped to ten percent of what they had been.  This year, only three people died in Israel proper as a result of the conflict with Palestinians: Daniel Viflic, who I mentioned earlier, Mary Jean Gardener, a British citizen who was killed by a bomb planted at the central bus station of Jerusalem, and Kristene Luken, an American stabbed to death in the woods by thugs from Hamas.  My fear of buses and public spaces has faded into memory.

The next post in this series is called Ethnic Struggle.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


This is the third in a series of posts about politics in Israel. To view the earlier posts in the series click these links:
1. Celebrating Israel   2. Middle East, not Middle Earth
This year I befriended a Palestinian man named Sayid who, in the words of our landlady, "comes begging for work every now and then."  We had been told by our landlady that we could trust him, though it took us a while to understand what it means for an upper-middle class Jew to trust a working class Palestinian.  He won't hurt you, he won't steal anything from you; but don't let him in the house unless absolutely necessary, and don't trust the details of things he says. 

In the beginning he seemed to lie to us, or at least he stretched the truth in irritating ways.  Certainly he viewed us as money machines, and his job was to extract as much from us as possible. But over time, as he saw that I respect him as a human being and that I want to help him but that I do not have the financial resources to solve his problems, he and I developed a deeper level of mutual trust.

Sayid is the father of five children.  The oldest is a teenager with severe developmental problems, who lives in an Arab boarding school for the disabled.  His second child's growth seems delayed, and she is being treated at Hadassah hospital (Israel's premiere hospital, named for the Jewish women's organization that funds it.) His youngest child is still a toddler.

In talking to Sayid, it seems everything he does is for the sake of his five children.  They live hand to mouth; many days Sayid himself eats nothing.  His capacity for physical hardship astounds me.  He can work in the hot sun for hours on end, with nothing in his belly but a cup of coffee and nicotine from his cigarette.  More than once he has told me his electricity was disconnected, or he has no water this month and has to borrow from neighbors.  Not long ago at a particularly desperate time he was talking about selling his refrigerator; I don't know if he went through with it. 

Sayid hates coming to Jerusalem.  He walks the streets searching for work, in constant fear of the police, as he has no work permit and could be jailed.  On more than one occasion he has been hauled into the police station at a time when he was not engaged in work, he was kept standing on his feet for several hours and then set free.   To anyone involved with working class Hispanic communities in America, this should all sound familiar.  But Sayid keeps coming back, because on the days he finds work here he can expect to earn at least 40 NIS an hour -- that's about $11.  A full day of hard labor in the Palestinian territories, working from 8AM to 5PM with no lunch break, earns him just 70 NIS in total.  (I confirmed these numbers with other sources.)

A few months back, Sayid's wife left him.  She told him, "This is no way to live," and she took the baby and ran to her father's house.  Eventually she returned to her husband, but in the immediate aftermath of her departure Sayid came to me, desperate for work.  He talked to me for almost an hour, telling me of the humiliations he suffers on a daily basis.  He kept repeating two phrases, אני בן אדם, "I am a human being", I want to be treated as a human being,  and אין לי, "I do not have" -- I do not have land to build a store, I do not have an education to get a salaried job, my wife has never worked for money and I don't have anyone who can share my financial burden.  "All my children's needs, they all fall on my shoulders," he told me.  As he spoke, his voice grew more and more desperate.  And though I was sitting alone with him in my living room, and I trust him that he would never hurt me, still it was not hard to imagine that desperation turning to violence -- if the atmosphere were ripe, and if someone lit a spark.

This is the third in a series of comments about the political situation in Israel.  To read the next comment in the series, click here.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Middle East, NOT Middle Earth

I have a confession to make. In my last post, I apologized for a month long silence and blamed it on a time crunch. In truth, I have been experiencing a time crunch as my blissful year in Israel comes to an end, and I try to drain out every last drop of תענוג, spiritual pleasure, that I possibly can. But -- I was also avoiding my blog for another reason.

The post before last, I wrote a tribute to the state of Israel in honor of Israel's Independence Day. I had planned that tribute to be the first in a series of comments about Israeli politics and society, and I've been avoiding making those posts. Writing about Israel is likely to be career suicide for a rabbi; if she is critical of Israel, the hawks will have her head, and if she is supportive of Israel, the doves will skewer her heart. But even aside from concerns of how I will be received, I felt in all honesty קטנתי -- I am too small. The situation here so complex, what can I say that is not an oversimplification?

And yet, I have made worthwhile observations, and so, with a deep breath, I will share a few notes. Consider my post today to be the second in a series of seven about the political situation in Israel. To give you a sense of where I am going, here is a list of all the titles:
1. Celebrating Israel
2. This is the Middle East, not Middle Earth!
3. Sayid
4. The Security Wall
5. Ethnic Struggle 
6. Borders
7. The Future

This is the Middle East, not Middle Earth

I am frustrated by the way conversations about Israel seem to flatten everything down to a battle between good and evil.

The BBC is possibly the worst main-stream offender on the anti-Israel side. Several organizations, for example Just Journalism, have been tracking their biased reporting. I am not a regular follower, but I recently came across one relatively tame example: take a look at this short article about Daniel Viflic, a 16 year old boy who was killed this year by a rocket fired from Gaza into Israel. The article concludes:

It was the most serious violence since Israel's conflict with Hamas in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.

About 1,400 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, and 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers, were killed.

I was shocked to learn that a single death had led to a conflict of such large scale, killing 1400 people, and that somehow I had missed the entire event! (It took me a few moments to realize that in recalling all those deaths, the article was reminding us of Operation Cast Lead of 2008-09, not the response to Daniel Viflic's death.)

Notice how the BBC typically refer to "Israel's conflict with Hamas", NOT the conflict between Israel and Hamas -- ignoring the fact that Operation Cast Lead, as brutal as it was, was a response to a daily onslaught of rocket fire from Gaza into Israel that has been traumatizing the residents of southern Israel, Jewish and Bedouin alike. Political science professor Jonathon Rynhold of Bar Ilan University refers to the BBC news coverage as reflecting a post-colonial mentality. He contrasts his own views: "I see this as a conflict with two sides."

So why does the BBC see this as Israel's conflict? Many Jews consider their one-sided views to be antisemitic. I actually think the BBC is racist in the opposite direction. My chevrutah Shaiya Rothberg -- whose views are usually quite left -- once pointed out to me that groups who see Israel as solely responsible for the conflicts in this region must think that certain types of people (third world? Muslim?) cannot be held responsible for their own actions.

But on the other side, I am equally frustrated by the all-too common Israeli view of Arabs as monolithic (they are all violent Jew-haters), or of Jews as the only humans in the region who really matter. Earlier this year, a private group paid to place larger-than-life pictures of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt"l, on the sides of city buses. Next to the Rebbe's welcoming half-smile were the words מדינה פליסטנית אסון ליהודים. (Translation: A Palestinian State is a disaster for the Jews.) Imagine how Jerusalem's Arab citizens, or, worse, her Palestinian visitors, must have felt boarding those buses! If that is hard to appreciate, try imagining the reaction if there were to be adds on California buses announcing: "Spanish in our schools is a disaster for true Americans."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Love That is Not Dependent On a Thing

Sorry for my month-long silence!  The end of the academic year brought a time crunch.  My post today is a comment I wrote for the Fuchsberg Center's eNewsletter about this week's Torah reading.  If you were at Shevach around this time last year, you may remember I led a Torah discussion about Rabbi Mordecai Finley's concept of higher love and lower love.  One is characterized by the question "What can I do for you?", the other by the question "What can you do for me?"  Here is another view of those two types of love. 

A few months ago, my five-year-old daughter misbehaved and I took away one of her baby-dolls.  That night as I tucked her into bed, she said to me:
"Mommy, usually I love you, but today I don't love you."
"You don't love me? Why not?"
"Because you took my baby away.”
I was amazed by her statement.  Here it was, in the raw, what our sages referred to as Ahava HaTluyah B’davar,’"Love that is dependent on something": a type of love appropriate from a kindergartener, but plenty common among adults as well.  Such love, if it does not mature into Ahava She’eyno Tluyah B’davar, "Love that is not dependent on anything", remains fickle – a love that comes and goes and easily flips to hatred.
Our parsha this week -- B'halotechah -- starts out with hopeful expectations of love.  Hashem gives orders regarding the menorah in the Tabernacle, and Aharon prepares the menorah exactly to Hashem's liking.  Israel and God are preparing a home together.  But before the parshah ends, the Israelites are complaining about the food, then God hurls meat from the skies and kills people off while the meat is still between their teeth.
The food complaints seem as absurd as any family brawl when viewed from the outside.  "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free," the people moan (Num. 11:5).  Rashi asks the obvious question, "If (the Egyptians) didn't give them straw (for making their bricks), could it be that they gave them free fish?"  The explanation, says Rashi, is that the food in Egypt was "free from mitsvot."   God's desert menu may have been delicious; mannah that tasted like honey, or oil pastries, or like any taste you can imagine.  But the mannah was a gift with strings attached, and it's so easy to resent those strings.
Even Moshe gets fed up with the Israelites and turns to Hashem in desperation.  "Did I conceive this entire nation, did I give birth to him?  How can you say to me 'Carry him in your bosom as a nurse carries a suckling infant?'" (Num. 11:12)  But were the Israelites really a nation of infants?  Had they not stood  at Mt. Sinai, like a bride at the Chupah?  I cannot accept that Hashem chose a child-bride!  And yet the adults of this nation behave like a bunch of children; whining about water and food, breaking the rules the first chance they get, viewing themselves as grasshoppers next to the giant adults who now occupy their land. 
The Israelites seem like my five-year old daughter, who loves me because of the things she gets from me.  But then consider the reality of the people in the desert, helplessly dependent for the basic necessities of life.  The desert experience was infantilizing. 
An intimate relationship demands interdependency.  But when the dependency is too great, insecurities can diminish both the love and the person.  What if I can't live up to his expectations?  What if he stops giving me what I need?  Why doesn't he give me more?
Any of us who search for God in our lives is not far from the desert.  If we view Hashem in the way generations before us did -- as the Master of the Universe who holds each soul in His hand -- then our dependency is overwhelmingly great.  But if, as is more common these days, we are overwhelmed by unanswered prayers, by our awareness of the cruelties of this world -- then we run to the opposite coast, banishing any sense of dependency on God, and any possibility of loving God, from our hearts.  We must work to experience towards God a mature love: a love based on appreciation and joy, Ahava She’eyno Tluyah B’davar, a love that is not dependent on a thing.   

What is true of our relationship with God is true of the all the adult relationships in our lives.  Grown children must work to transition their feelings for their parents from dependency to mutuality.  Lovers and dear friends must invest in each other, to feel the other's happiness, to feel the pleasure of giving as deeply as we feel the pleasure of receiving.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Celebrating Israel

In America, for too many people Memorial Day has become the day after which it is again permissible to wear white shoes. Such a blasé attitude is impossible in Israel. Memorial Day here is a day on which nearly every Jewish citizen remembers and mourns someone they have lost. A father, a son, a neighbor, a friend: Israel has known too many wars in her young life, and no one is untouched.

A siren sounded at 8PM on Sunday night, and again at 10AM on Monday, and for their duration the country was silent. Cars pulled over to the side of the road, some mid-intersection or mid-turn, and the drivers stepped out and stood quietly . The siren sounded a solid blast, like a tekiah of the shofar, the all-clear sign during a war. The same sirens, played in broken bursts like a shevarim, are the alarm signals that mean run for your life. Every house and apartment in Israel is equipped with a bomb-shelter, usually doubling as a bedroom.  At 8PM last night I was sitting in the dark of my daughter's bedroom as she fell asleep, and, because I was also in Israel during the Gulf War, it was easy for me to imagine that eerie wail as broken bursts, announcing an unknown terror rushing toward us in the form of a missile in the night sky.

It is characteristically Jewish to catapult from solemnity to utter, joyous release. Ta'anit Esther, a day of fasting, is followed immediately by Purim, the silliest day of the year. Yom Kippur, the day we throw ourselves onto the mercy of heaven, is followed quickly by Sukkot, a holiday of such happiness it is often referred to simply as חג, "holiday". And Israel's Memorial Day ends on the evening that Yom Ha'atzmaut -- Independence Day -- begins.

As Debbie Friedman wrote in the lyrics to Miriam's Song, "We just lived through a miracle, we're going to dance tonight." For two thousand years, we prayed for this miracle. Every Jewish prayer service since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE centered on our pleas to God, to free us from our oppressors and return us to Jerusalem. ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון "May our eyes see Your return to Zion." Yom Ha'atzmaut is and should be a day of fireworks and barbecues, but also Hallel. Because I do believe history progresses, I am confident future generations of Jews will look back on this time as a period of miracles.

I cannot dance on a blog, but here is my virtual dance, a giddy tribute to this day -- a list of biblical, rabbinic and kabbalistic references that are sewn into the daily life of Jerusalem today:

מפני שיבה תקום On public buses, instead of a clunkily worded notice that passengers should vacate these seats for the elderly and persons with disabilities, three simple words from a biblical verse are posted at the front of the bus: "מפני שיבה תקום Rise before old age." (Leviticus 19:32)

אין סוף אפשרויות Outside the Jerusalem Theatre, a large banner proclaims "Infinite possibilities", where the term infinite is a kabbalistic reference to God as containing the entire universe.

השבת אבידה Lamp-posts, fences, trees throughout Jerusalem are decorated with hand-printed signs proclaiming an item lost or found, using the Talmudic term for a commandment to return lost items, originating in the bible but much elaborated on in rabbinic sources.

פריקה וטעינה בלבד "Loading and Unloading Only" This standard street sign recalls the Talmudic language discussing the biblical commandment to assist another person's donkey that has stumbled under its burden.

הנה אנכי שלח מלאך לפניך לשמרך בדרך Behold I am sending an angel before you, to protect you on the way (Exodus 23:20) God's words to Israel, as they set off on their journey through the desert to the promised land, now drive around Jerusalem on the front grille of a delivery truck.

And finally, my favorite:
וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק "And he saw the place from a distance," (Genesis 22:4) These words describe Abraham, as he approached the place where he was to sacrifice Isaac. The ancient rabbis identified that place as the future Temple mount in Jerusalem. Our friends Dave and Toby Curwin own an apartment in Efrat, twenty minutes outside Jerusalem, and from their living room porch they can see, at the end of a series of brown desert hills, the green hills and buildings of Jerusalem. וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק they posted above their porch door.

This is the first in a series of comments about the political situation in Israel.  To read the next comment in the series, click here.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Have We Progressed?

Two posts back, I shared my understanding of a talk by Reb Shmuel Lewis.  The Torah insists that human morality can and must progress; that history is not cyclic but rather linear or teleological.  We are heading towards a better world.  The example Reb Shmuel gave was slavery, which was once accepted as an inescapable part of reality and is now abhorrent to all of us.

My post triggered complex reactions from many of you.  No one left a comment on my blog site, but, as is always the case, I received many comments by email and Facebook, and each one made me think again.

I don't know any slave owners personally.  But I am certain that my wardrobe includes clothing and my kitchen cabinets include foods that were produced in part by the hands of slaves.  In the year 2000, a report by the US State Department noted that 15,000 children aged 9 to 12 had been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee, and cocoa plantations on the Ivory Coast alone.  And where is all that cotton, coffee and cocoa heading?  You guessed it -- our wardrobes and kitchen cabinets.   The Slave Free Chocolate coalition estimates that cocoa production worldwide uses 100,000 child slaves.

On the other hand, in 2008 the UK's Fair Trade Foundation announced a total of 4.12 billion dollars of fair trade sales worldwide, and the fair trade movement is slow but growing in the US and Canada.  Many chocolate companies in particular make a point of selling only products that do not rely on exploitation (at least, not severe exploitation.)

So now I am posing it as an open question, on the evening after Holocaust Memorial Day.  In the past millennium, humanity has made astonishing progress in science and technology, but have we made any progress in matters of the heart?

Please tell me what you think.  If you are unable to leave a comment here on the blog site (many people have told me they've tried to leave comments, but their efforts were lost when they clicked "post"), send me an email at ilana@post.harvard.edu, and give me permission to copy your email into an anonymous comment on my site.  Let's get a conversation going.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Discussion Ideas for the Seder

If you are leading a seder this year, more important than coming up with sparkling new insights is preparing questions that will lead to juicy discussion.  For example, Chancellor Arnold Eisner of JTS offers some suggestions for intergenerational conversation at the seder table.

Here is a series of three questions I plan to raise at my seder Monday night:

1. יציאת מצרים, the Exodus from Egypt, is our founding myth.  Other cultures have different founding myths.  America, for example, was founded by idealistic pioneers, who braved treacherous conditions in pursuit of religious freedom.  Rome was founded by twin demi-Gods, Romulus and Remus, whose mother's husband was killed by his brother in an attempt to take his throne.  The twins themselves were left to die but were found and raised by wolves.  Eventually Romulus murdered Remus in a dispute over where to found the new city, Rome.
When compared to these other two founding myths, what does the Jewish myth tell us about how we view ourselves as a people?  How has our founding myth shaped our identity, sustaining us or hurting us, through the generations?  How does our founding myth shape Israeli Jewry and, separately, American Jewry, today?

2.  In describing the magid -- the storytelling portion of the haggadah -- the mishnah includes a cryptic instruction: מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח,  "One starts with shame and concludes with praise" (Pesachim 10:4).  What is the shame referred to here?  The Babylonian Talmud records two opinions:  Rav says we should remember that our ancestors were once idol worshipers, and  Shmuel says we should remember that our ancestors were slaves.  Part one of the discussion is this: what is the difference in the way Rav and Shmuel are thinking about shame?  Which form of shame is more familiar to you?  Which seems more appropriate to the Passover seder?
(In fact, our haggadoth include both versions.  We begin by recalling that "we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt", and a few pages later we begin again by recalling that "in the beginning our fathers were idol worshipers.")

3. Dr. Joshua Kulp of the Conservative Yeshiva shared with us an 11th century haggadah found in the Cairo Genizah.  This haggadah follows the traditions of ancient Israel (or Yerushalmi), distinct from those of Babylonia, and it seems to have a different understanding of the "shame" referred to in the mishnah.

It begins its telling of the story of the Exodus with Jacob's decision to leave the land of Israel and go down to Egypt.

Later in the magid section of the seder, both the Cairo haggadah and our modern haggadoth include the following comment:

וירד מצרימה , אנוס על בי הדבור

And he went down to Egypt, compelled by (divine) word.

With these words, we try to justify Jacob's decision to leave the promised land and go down to the land of oppression.  In fact, a careful reading of the account in Genesis suggests that Jacob was not only NOT compelled by divine word, he made his choice without consulting God.  Only after Jacob began his journey south did God speak to him and validate his decision:

ויאמר ישראל רב עוד יוסף בני חי, אלכה ואראנו בטרם אמות.  ויסע ישראל וכל אשר לו ויבא באר שבע, ויזבח זבחים לאלוקי אביו יצחק. ויאמר אלוקים לישראל במראות הלילה ויאמר יעקב יעקב, ויאמר הנני. ויאמר אנכי הא–ל אלוקי אביך, אל תירא מרדה מצרימה כי לגוי גדול אשימך שם.
And Israel (Jacob) said "How wonderful, my son Joseph is still alive, I will go and see him before I die. And Israel and all that was his traveled, and he came to Beer Sheba.  He sacrificed animals to the God of his father Isaac.  God said to him in a night vision: "Jacob, Jacob", and he said, "Here I am." And God said, "I am the God of your fathers.  Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, because I will make you a great nation there.  (Genesis 55:28-56:2)

Jacob's decision to leave Israel is not told in our haggadoth as a cause for shame.  The Babylonian tradition superseded the Israeli tradition on many counts, including this one.  How is this third source of shame different from the two that we do recall?  Would our founding myth feel different if we saw it as beginning with Jacob's voluntary decision to leave the land chosen by God for Abraham, to go down to the land of Egypt?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Owning Time

The ideas in this post are from my understanding of a talk by Shmuel Lewis (the head of the Conservative Yeshiva, who is both Dr. and Rabbi but prefers to be called neither.)

When Euripides described the women of Troy being taken into slavery, his words evoked pity for their suffering. But his words did not suggest condemnation or responsibility.  In the mind of the ancient Greek, slavery, like plague or famine, was a tragic natural occurrence.

One of the great innovations of the Bible was to see humanity as responsible for human oppression.

In ancient Greece history was believed to be cyclic.  The world existed eternally, and the patterns of history forever repeated themselves.  Nothing fundamental could ever change, and so humanity had no responsibility to change the patterns of oppression they created. 

The Bible presents a very different view of history.  The world did not exist eternally, but came to be by an act of creation.  As a result, creation and change are always possible.  And history is not cyclic, but linear.  Each generation can be different from anything that came before, if we make it so.  Though slavery was socially acceptable 200 years ago, now we know it to be abhorrent.

This Shabbat, we will be reading in synagogue God's famous words as the Israelites were about to flee Egypt.  החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים, This month is for you the first of months (Exodus 12:2), identifying Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs, as the first month of the Jewish calendar.  Our tradition asks what does "for you" mean in this verse, and the traditional answer is that with this statement, God handed over control of the calendar to human authorities.  We humans set the calendar, and in so doing we set the days of the holidays.

Shmuel Lewis offers an additional, novel interpretation. Not only the calendar, but time itself God handed over to us at that moment of liberation.  You are no longer slaves.  You can control your own time, and so time is now linear for you.  The past was brutal.  But you can make the future a better one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Most days on my way to the Yeshiva, I pass a woman walking in the opposite direction.  She is about my age, she wears long skirts, gym shoes, glasses and a scarf that covers all of her hair.  I don't know her name, but we usually smile and say "Boker tov" (good morning) as we pass. 

This woman and I share at least one thing in common: neither of us invests much effort in looking pretty.  My own hair I wear long and usually overdue for a haircut, and the kippah perched on top of my head is not considered becoming around here (see my previous post on kippot.)  But a couple of weeks ago, I walked into an upscale beauty parlor, and on a whim I told the stylist, "maybe make it short."  Fifteen minutes later, foot long strands of my hair covered the floor, and my hairdo was as short as a boy's, as chic as a supermodel's.

The next few times I passed that woman, she did not meet my eye.  On the third day, as I passed her she said "תתחדשי", "renew yourself" -- the blessing offered someone who was received something new, such as a haircut.  With a start, I realized she had probably not recognized me until now; perhaps not surprising, as my own daughter did not recognize me the day I got my hair cut.  I happened to pass the woman again on my way home that day, and this time she stopped me and said (in Hebrew): "I was in a rush this morning so I couldn't stop, but I wanted to tell you that your hair looks terrific.  It is very fitting for you."

How delicious, this compliment from a stranger who covers every last strand of her own hair!  Israelis like to mind everyone else's business, and both criticism and compliments from strangers are common.  How especially sweet are the gestures of friendship from strangers in ideological camps different from my own!

A few days later, about 7 in the evening I got a call from a friend down the block.  "Come outside, there's a הכנסת ספר תורה -- a dedication of a new Torah scroll -- passing by."  My five-year-old daughter heard and was out the door before I could stop her, running down the block.  As I chased after her, I worried about my blue jeans, my short hair and the kippah on my head.  But when we reached the partying throngs, we were easily accepted into the crowd.  We followed the Sefer Torah nearly a quarter mile through the streets, singing and dancing all the way.  From the looks of the people at the front of the procession, I gathered we were heading to a fairly traditional Sephardi shul, and I marveled at how comfortable I felt.

About an hour later, I was standing on the steps of the shul trying to push through the crowd to return  home.  An older woman wanted to pass me to get into the building.  She did not realize I was also trying to get past; she thought I was just standing there, blocking the steps, and she said to me: "למה אתה לא נותן לנו לעבור?" "Why don't you let us pass?"  Translated to English, it seems an innocuous question.  But in Hebrew, all nouns and pronouns are gendered, and she addressed me as אתה,  the masculine form of "you".  I detected no malice in her voice.  She genuinely thought I was a man.

That moment did not exactly ruin the evening.  I still felt some wonder at the openness of the celebration.  My daughter was munching candies provided by the women of the shul, and we had both enjoyed the music and the march and no one was troubled that we were not members of their community.  Still, the sparkle was gone.

A couple of days later, on a rainy morning, I was wearing baggy jacket and rain pants, and an older woman innocently addressed me as "אתה", that masculine you.

I am a bold, kippah-wearing, feminist woman rabbi.  These days, I am avoiding wearing jeans in favor of skirts.  As soon as I have a free afternoon I plan to get my ears pierced.  Most of all, I am trying to figure out where in Jerusalem I could possibly purchase a more feminine looking kippah; something lacy perhaps, or something studded with rhinestones.

A Biblical injunction has been bubbling into my thoughts almost daily, emerging from my childhood:  לֹא יהיה כלי גבר על אשה, "A man's outfit must not be on an a woman" (Deuteronomy 22:5).   That particular verse hasn't been in my head for ten years at least, through countless interactions and friendships with people with unorthodox gender identities.  Just as a transgender person feels compelled to present as other than the gender he or she or ze was born into, I now discover that I feel compelled to present as the gender I was born into.

How complex the human soul!   I cannot explain why I suddenly decided to cut my hair short -- though after the fact I noticed that the last time I had hair this short I was also a yeshiva student, twenty years ago in the post-high-school program of Midreshet Lindenbaum.  I cannot explain why with long hair I could endure the scorn of strangers who could not tolerate a woman wearing a kippah, but with short hair I cannot endure being mistaken for a man.  Oh, I could write words that sound almost like explanations, but nothing I could say would really explain.  The streams of the subconscious are too complex, and sometimes all we can do is shrug our shoulders and laugh.

To quote my teacher, the head of the Conservative Yeshiva, Reb Shmuel Lewis: "Humans may be little less than the angels, but the G-d like task of imposing order on the chaos of our hearts – gadol aleinu!  It is outsized for us, it cannot help but put us face to face with our human foibles and the ultimate ridiculousness of the whole noble (and ennobling) enterprise."