Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nietzsche, Hanukkah & Israel Moments

Academic readings create strange intersections with life in Israel.  A few days ago, I read the first section of Nietzsche's "The Genealogy of Morals," for one of my courses at Mandel.  Where do morals come from according to Nietzsche?  He argues that good didn't used to mean "morally good," it just meant you were part of the strong, privileged class and "bad" didn't mean "morally bad," it just meant you were part of the weak, lower class.  So where did our idea of the "moral” come from?  You guessed it: the Jews.  But Nietzsche is no fan of Jewish (or Christian) morality:

Human history would be too fatuous for anything were it not for the cleverness imported into it by the weak…the Jews, that priestly nation which eventually realized that the one method of effecting satisfaction on its enemies and tyrants was by means of a radical transvaluation of values, which was at the same time an act of the cleverest revenge…It was the Jews who, in opposition to the aristocratic equation, dared with a terrifying logic to suggest the contrary equation, namely, “the wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good…It was, in fact, with the Jews that the revolt of the slaves begins in the sphere of morals; that revolt which has behind it a history of two millennia, and which at the present day has only moved out of our sight, because it – has achieved victory.”

When I read this passage, a part of me said to myself, “guilty as charged.”  While I disagree with Nietzsche’s characterization that we suggested that “the wretched alone are the good,” that is far preferable to an ethics, if one can call it that, in which the only good is those who are strong, those who win.

For the next eight days, Jews around the world will include the following passage in every Amidah (prayer) and every Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) for Hanukkah:

We thank You also for the miraculous deeds and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and the saving acts wrought by You, as well as for the wars which You waged for our ancestors in ancient days at this season. In the days of the Hasmonean, Mattathias, son of Johanan the high priest, and his sons, when the iniquitous Greco-Syrian kingdom rose up against Your people Israel, to make them forget Your Torah and to turn them away from the ordinances of Your will, You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in the time of their trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrong, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and insolent ones into the hands of those occupied with Your Torah. Both unto Yourself did you make a great and holy name in Your world, and unto Your people did You achieve a great deliverance and redemption. Therefore Your children entered the sanctuary of Your house, cleansed Your temple, purified Your sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courts, and appointed these eight days of Hanukkah in order to give thanks and praises unto Your holy name

One could argue that the very meaning of Hanukkah is the victory of the weak – the Jews – over the strong – the Greeks, the Romans and a host of others in Jewish history who once oppressed us but now are gone.  But celebrating Hanukkah – and reading Nietzsche – in Israel is complicated.
Reading Nietzsche in Israel is complicated because scholars acknowledge that Nietzsche was read by, and influenced, the thought of Theodore Herzl and early Zionist poets Saul Tchernichovsky and Zalman Schneur.  Zionism constituted a break with one strand of rabbinic tradition that required waiting for the messiah to re-establish Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel.  By leaving Jewish tradition, and weakness, behind, Zionism moved forward (strongly) with the work that was necessary to build a state.  But strength is not only useful in building a State; it can be helpful governing one too.  Later in “The Genealogy of Morals,” Nietzsche writes about the virtue of forgetfulness.
“An inability to take seriously for any length of time their enemies, their disasters, their misdeeds – that is the sign of the full strong natures who possess a superfluity of moulding plastic force, that heals completely and produces forgetfulness…it is only in characters like these that we see the possibility (supposing, of course, that there is such a possibility in the world) of the real “love of one’s enemies.”
As one reads this passage in modern day Israel and thinks about our relationship with the Palestinians and our other efforts towards reconciliation with the Arab world, it is possible to hear Nietzsche’s statements as counsel for how to move forward in the world of nations. Could it be that we would do well to have confidence – not overconfidence, but confidence – enough in our own strength to strengthen those with whom we want to make peace, and for both of us to forget a bit of the past wrongs that haunt us?
Celebrating Hanukkah in Israel is complicated because in the Hanukkah drama, we were weak, God delivered us and the story ends there.  But here, it was secular Zionists who built the country. (I believe God’s hand played a role in the history of the founding of modern Israel but I have to be honest about the fact that the Zionists who built the country would likely protest that reading of history and certainly did not share that theology).  Here in Israel, the story of Hanukkah continues where the history leaves off.  At the end of the Hanukkah story, we are strong, as we are now.  The question is: what then?  Is a strong Jew an oxymoron?  Living in Israel, it is clear that a fundamental question of our era is: how does a Jew exercise power? 
With Nietzsche in my mind and Hanukkah on the horizon, we set out for our latest Tuesday afternoon tiyul to the Memorial site and the Armored Corps museum in Latrun.  All of our Tuesday tiyulim have been great but our three boys would tell you that the chance to see and climb on the world’s largest collection of tanks (in a museum) was amongst the best.  Here are some photos of the boys on the Merkava Mark 4 tank J

Now here is a quintessential Israel moment.  It is a quiet afternoon at Latrun.  It is not tourist season so many of these attractions have few visitors.  We pay the fee and the woman at the register tells us to wait for a minute while she calls for someone who will show us around in English.  Great – our own personal guide! Courtesy of the public relations department of the IDF.  The young man approaches and greets us when, after a moment, he says, “your face is very familiar.  Where are you from?”

“We’ve been in Los Angeles for the last 13 years,” I tell him.

“Wait, Camp Ramah?” he asks.  “Rabbi Dan??!!”

It turns out that Ethan, now Eitan, was a camper at Camp Ramah in California for two years – tzophim (entering 9th grade) and machon (entering 10th grade) – before his family picked up and made aliyah in 2004.

Eitan did a great job showing us around. He beamed with pride at the Merkava Mark IV – “the best tank on the face of the planet, made almost entirely in Israel.”  The kids asked him, “Can we get in the tank?”

“Only when you join the army,” he said, making that plug for aliyah that is just part of the vocabulary here.

I ask Jen, “how would you feel if they made aliyah and joined the army? Or joined the American army?”

“It’s an admirable and selfless path.  I’d be proud,” she said, as we walked with Eitan amongst the tanks.  I would worry if they were in the army, not only for their safety, but also for the ethical choices they would face as part of their service, in both the American and Israeli armies.  But I would be very proud, as I am of Eitan and the many other Ramahniks who have made aliyah and serve in the IDF, because their strength makes possible a great light in the world: Israel, Hanukkah, the continuing story of the Jewish people in our homeland.

The main purpose of the Hanukkah candles from the perspective of Jewish law is pirsuma d’nisa – to publicize the miracle (that’s why Chabad puts up big Hanukkiot in very public areas).  But one question we should ask about Hanukkah – what is the point of publicizing our miracle?  Is it to proclaim to the world: “They lost.  We won!”  If that’s the point, it just seems like bragging, bad sportsmanship.  Is it to proclaim, as Nietzsche argues, “the weak, the lowly, alone are good” – as if those without power are unassailable and those with power are unredeemable?

No.  The light of Hanukkah – the purpose of Jewish power – is to proclaim to the weak, the few, the pure, the righteous, those who love God – you are not alone.  Do not lose hope.  God, and we, are with you.  And to proclaim to ourselves, and the strong, that the purpose of our strength is defense on behalf of goodness.  Our light illumines the night, proclaims hope to despair, shines a beacon to dark corners.

Just a few hours ago, we ate sufganyot (doughnuts cooked in oil to remember the light) and spun dreidels, and I showed my sons candles burning all over the city – in windows, at the top of stair cases, on street corners.   Light shines from Jerusalem.  Happy Hanukkah.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On a lighter note, we have someone coming to visit us.  She lives near Sderot on a moshav and is happy to live in Israel without the hectic craziness of city life in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, though living near Sderot presents its own challenges, like how to keep your little children calm year after year while scrambling into bomb shelters.  But anyways...she is coming to Jerusalem, is not familiar with the city, and asked me to write her directions.

Now, I've actually driven this route many times, from the entrance of the city to our apartment in Baka, so I have a pretty good sense of how to do it. I would describe my ability to do it more as "feeling" my way through the streets, than really "knowing it."  But now I needed to tell it to someone else, so I got out my INDISPENSABLE Carta Jerusalem Street Atlas and started typing.  Keep in mind, that I'm writing these directions using STREET NAMES which is something Israelis NEVER DO (instead, it's usually "yashar" "yemin" "ad hasof" - straight, then right, then to the end, or "Oh, and there is a great falafel place!").  Using street names is also quite silly because many times, there are NO street signs!!

Twenty minutes of typing later, here is what I managed:

Stacey - Here is my best description of how to get from the entrance to the city to our place, but call if you get lost.

Enter Jerusalem on route 1 - the main tel aviv-Jerusalem road.
Go up the hill, past the big cemetery on the right and follow signs for the city center.  My recommended way to go is past the government buildings.  to do that,
1) when you get to the first main light after crossing beneath the big "harp" at the entrance to the city, TURN RIGHT.
you should be on "Sderot Herzl"
2) then TURN LEFT on sderot Yitzchak Rabin - this road should lead you past the Supreme Court building and the knesset, through a tunnel
3) TURN RIGHT on Sderot Ben Zvi - Gan "Sacher" - a big park , will be on your right.
4) Sderot Ben Zvi turns into Sderot Hayim Hazaz after you pass some tall high rise buildings on the left.
5) GO STRAIGHT across the next big intersection.  if you turn right (which you should NOT do), you'll be on a big street called Harav Herzog.  Instead GO STRAIGTH up the hill to the right.  that street will be called Tchernichowsky
6) FOLLOW Tchernichowsky.  It will turn into Fichman.  Look for AND TAKE A SHARP LEFT and uphill ONTO HAPALMACH.
7) follow Hapalmach and turn RIGHT on KOVSHEI KATAMON.  take this DOWN HILL.
8) at a circle, you won't be able to keep going downhill because the street becomes one-way for a block.  so, at the circle, turn RIGHT ON BUSTANAI
9) then LEFT on the next street which is HIZKIYAHU HAMELECH AND THEN RIGHT AGAIN DOWNHILL AGAIN ON ELAZAR HAMODAI (this is just the continuation of kovshei katamon after the one-way block)
10)  you're almost there.  at the bottom of the hill take Elazar hamodai ACROSS emek refa'im, veering towards the right (not a hard right, but sort of straight-right onto Pierre Koenig).  there will be a gas station on your right, but GET IN THE LEFT LANE.
11) For just a moment, you'll be on Pierre Koenig but at the first light, TURN LEFT on Yehuda.
12) TURN LEFT at the first street.  the name of it is Naftali but there is no street sign.  our complex is a big one on the right hand side in the 2nd block.  you'll see a flight of stairs up from the street.  just park and go up the stairs - those will lead you into a courtyard which is Dan "street" - even though no cars go on Dan street.  look for number 20.  our place is one of 4 apartments at #20; it is1/2 floor up on the right hand side of the #20 entrance.

Okay - I want a PhD or royalties for writing a marx brothers/abbot and costello routine in the form of driving directions.  Or, I'll give you $100 cash if you can, without the use of the internet or other reference materials, tell me the biographies or relevant histories of each of the street names on the directions above.
i love this place, but it's nuts...
see ya...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Journey to the Funeral

The Journey to the Funeral

On November 17th, 2009, I woke up and read a message on Facebook – the modern day bearer of all tidings – posted by one of my swim coaches from my childhood.  It read, “Briefly, David collapsed while running on Saturday morning; he - as you can imagine - was in good health and good shape.  We are at a loss to understand how this could have happened to him.”  When I read those words, it was not clear to me what had happened.  I thought perhaps he was in the hospital, in serious condition and that the words to follow would be a call for prayers and support, a rallying cry for healing.  What followed was, “The services for David will be at First Presbyterian Church.”  David Knauert, one of my best swimming friends from high school, was dead.

Since the end of our swimming careers 15 years ago, David had become a running maniac.  During one recent stretch, he ran 120 miles in 10 days, often by himself into the night after the kids were asleep.  On Saturday morning, November 14th, 2009, David was running on the streets of Atlanta with his best friend.  He and his wife and four children were passing time in Atlanta for a few weeks, waiting for their visas to come through.  David was an ordained Presbyterian minister and had just received his Doctor of Divinity from Duke University. His family was headed to Brazil to do missionary work when, 300 yards from Emory U. hospital, David collapsed.  A doctor and nurse nearby got off their bikes and started to help him in seconds.  Ambulances arrived within minutes.  They paddled him (the chest paddles you see in the movies) in the street, but he flat-lined.  They never got a pulse.

David and his wife, Leigh, and I were co-captains of our high school swim team.  He was, to me, a swimming brother, a concept difficult to explain to those who have not spent thousands of hours enduring the physical and mental tests of competitive training.  We competed, in the best sense of the word.  We made each other better, better swimmers and, through swimming, better people than we could have become on our own without the brotherhood of the swimming lanes we shared through our youth.  In short, David was one of a small group of guys that grew up together, like brothers do, in the swimming pool that was our home.  Leigh was David’s high school sweetheart.  She was a swimmer too, a good friend of all of ours.  Leigh said to a friend just a few days after David’s death, “I’m so grateful.”

“Grateful??” her friend asked, incredulous that she could find gratitude knowing that her 4 kids will grow up without their father.

“What if he had died at night on one of those runs?  Alone?  We would only have found him in the morning, never knowing if he suffered, how and why he died, if we could have saved him.  He died in his friend’s arms.  He died 300 yards outside of Emory University hospital with a team of doctors and nurses with the best equipment fighting to save his life.  At least I know: nothing could have saved him.  That makes it easier.”  Gratitude.  When I hear myself complain sometimes, I try to think of Leigh.  Perspective.  She found gratitude.

Two days after I read about David’s death on Facebook almost a year ago, I was on a red-eye to the holy city of Durham, North Carolina where David would be buried.  I got a cup of coffee and wrote in the terminal of the airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, my stop-over city on the way to Raleigh-Durham.  I was waylaid for a while but the fog broke and our small plane soon took off for the last leg of this funeral journey.  My friends, two more swimming brothers, picked me up at the airport.  We traveled to the hotel, got changed into suits, and at 4pm Eastern Standard Time, helped bury our childhood friend.  I felt honored to do what the Jewish tradition calls a hesed shel emet – a true kindness, one that cannot be repaid – to comfort David’s wife, to help escort him to the next world.  It is something I hope others will do for me one day, may God make it a long time from now.

The journey from death leads to heaven or to God or back to the earth or to a place beyond.  But to where does the journey to the funeral lead?  To attend a funeral is to make a journey to a journey; a pilgrimage to escort those I love, or their bodies, to the border of this world.  Not only those I love.  Jewish tradition teaches a funeral is so holy we must abandon all other tasks to accompany all dead to their resting place, not only those we love.  But where does the pilgrimage of accompaniment lead?  To grief?  To honesty? To death, yes, but also to an awareness of life which can only be achieved through an awareness of grief and death.  It is a journey beneath the surface of our lives, a reminder of that which bubbles beneath.  Sitting next to my coffee in an airport, alone, I crave, ache and yearn for my children and my wife and my life ever more because David is gone, because tomorrow if I were to die as he did, I am given a glimpse at what will be thought and said and remembered after I am gone.  More important, I am given a pause between the notes, silence that only gazing at the grave provides, to listen to God’s voice within the stillness of my mind and ask, “what do you want out of your life?”  My answer is life.  Life.

November 14th, 2010 marks one calendar year since the death of David Knauert.  November 14, 2010 corresponds to the 7th of Kislev, exactly three years on the Jewish calendar since the death of my student and friend, Joel Shickman.  May both of their memories be for a blessing.  To funerals of friends, I have journeyed there and back, dare I say too many times?  I have inhaled the question asked by the rabbis long ago, “would it have been better never to have been created at all?”  I have cried out in despair, “why did I bring children into a world of such pain and darkness?”  But last night, as I prayed and said kaddish for my friends who are gone, I understood why the prayers tell us that God resurrects the dead and gives new life.  Joy comes in the morning.  Life awakes in spring time.  God finished creation and declared, “and it was good.”  The grave is a meditation, a dip in a pool beneath splashing waters; it is a womblike wonderland in which I push off the wall, fly, and feel a sense of awe at being alive.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Tuesday Tiyul to Me'ah She'arim

Each Tuesday, Jennifer and the boys and I have been going on tiyulim around the city.  So far, they've included the shuk at Machaneh Yehuda, a walking tour of Yemin Moshe, an afternoon at "Park HaMifletzet" (the Monstor Park - named for the 3 slides that come out of the "mouth" of a "monster"), and, this past Tuesday, Me'ah She'arim.  As we started off through the neighborhood, I pulled the older boys aside and told them that some people call this a "very religious neighborhood," because the people here dress differently.  "But do you know who else is very religious?" I asked them.

"Us?" they answered.

"Yes, we are.  We live in a very religious house," I explained, "but being religious doesn't mean that you have to dress differently than everyone else.  Abba and Ima think it's very important that Jews never forget who we are - and that means being different sometimes - but we also think it's very important that Jews participate in the world around us.  We think that's a really important part of being very religious."

Here is a link to the photo album on facebook

You should be able to access it.  Enjoy.

From the Land to the Microchip

From the Land to the Microchip

Just slightly, Jerusalem is turning colder.  On his scooter ride to gan this morning, Ranon turns to me and says, "The wind is making me cold but the sun is making me warm!"  It is that in-between time of year.  The weather is turning a little cooler, yet the sun still warms and, with its dry air, the Jerusalem sun still dries clothes.  I return home from bring Ranon to gan, bring a basket of clothes upstairs and methodically, I hang them on the drying racks we have purchased for the year.

In America, we have dryers.  Truth be told, we have a dryer here too but it is small and so expensive to run that it just makes good economic/environmental sense to keep hanging your clothes out to dry until the sun will no longer do its job.  So instead, we hang our laundry out to dry.  It takes longer, but this morning I appreciate putting in the extra effort.  As I put each sock and shirt in place in preparation for when the sun will be overhead, I think about how this extra effort is an act of love.  I hope that my kids will know that our love of the Jewish people was measured this year, in part, by time spent putting their underwear and socks and shirts and pants out to dry in the Jerusalem sun.  The land, a place of one's own, makes possible all sorts of Jewish expression.

On the way home, I passed an Arab worker employed by the city.  He was pouring cement to put in place the footing for a sign along the walkway being built where the old railroad tracks used to run through Baka.  My teacher, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, once taught me that you can tell a person's true character by how s/he treats people in society who are helpers such as waiters and waitresses, flight attendents, and construction workers.  Both in America and here in Israel - wherever I go - I try, as best I can, to greet such people, to look them in the eye, perhaps say "hello," "good morning" or "thanks for your help."  I try not to ignore them, but rather, as best possible in our modern world, to create a personal interaction.  To create what Buber called an "I-Thou" moment, rather than, "I-It."  So as I passed the Arab worker, I picked my head up and looked into his eyes and tried to say hello, but he just looked passed me, away, and our eyes did not meet, and I felt a certain sadness.  It was just a moment.  Perhaps he was tired and had not had his morning coffee, or was looking for something in the distance.  But I felt a sadness at an opportunity lost for meeting - a sadness layered with the divisions between a laborer and me, between Arab and Jew - and also a sadness that so few Jews do such work here.

So much of the Zionist ethic was about re-invorgorating the Jewish body (see my earlier post) and about having a deep connection with the land.  It was about drying the swamps, making the desert bloom, working the land and, in doing so, expanding the ways in which the Jewish people live out their relationship with God.  Not books and prayer only.  Cement and earth.  Sweat and labor.  Mind and body together.  Some of that ethic is being lost.

There are good reasons.  Israel's strength as a State could not be sustained with an agricultural economy.  With astonishing success, Israel leads the world in technology and innovation (for more, read Start-Up Nation if you haven't already) benefitting not only Israel but humanity with advances in medicine and computers.  I get it.  It is the right thing to do, the smart thing for the future.  So instead, Israel employs Arabs and Phillipinos to build the streets and harvest the fields, often providing higher paying jobs than would otherwise be available to them (though too often also not fulfilling other moral responsibilities that one has towards a minority in one's midst) and, in doing so, freeing up Jews to work in high-tech so that its economy can move into the 21st century.  I get that what I feel is perhaps a certain naive nostalgia for the past which, to be true to its founding mission (to build a State for the Jewish people) could not remain static, but had to change and evolve, from the land to the microchip.  But, in passing the Arab worker this morning, I grew concerned not only at the division it creates when someone else builds for you, but when you lose your physical connection to the land.  And in just that little bit of extra time spent hanging my laundry out to dry, I experienced a sliver of the satisfaction that comes from expressing one's love for God and Torah and the Jewish people, and my children too, through one's body and the work of one's hands.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Israel: Mind and Body, plus a photo from Alon Greyber at the end

Israel: Mind and Body
Studying Torah in modern Israel makes perfect sense, and is ironic.  It makes perfect sense – every year thousands of kids spend a “gap year” between high school and college in yeshiva or on gap year programs such as Nativ and others like it. 
(Forgive me a digression: For the record, I am a big fan of the gap year.  University is an unbelievable opportunity.  Four to five years to read, think, discuss and write about literature, science, philosophy, history with professors and students – the Mandel Foundation has afforded me this one year for which I am unbelievably grateful; what I wouldn’t give for another three or four years!!  But university is wasted on too many of our young people who, understandably, spend their first year or two partying, sowing their oats, skipping class, watching ESPN and trying to figure out who they are independent of their parents’ homes.  Better to come to Israel; do a gap year program.  Travel.  Explore. Think about identity and the meaning of life on the buses between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, fall in love with the Mediterranean beaches and the holiness of Jerusalem; get some of the partying out of your system and then return to university more mature, more emotionally prepared to take advantage of the incredible opportunities that classes and libraries and the university community has to offer.  Feel free to disagree – but this is my $.02 on the year after high school.)
Thousands of others come to the Conservative Yeshiva, Pardeis, Yakar etc.. to learn Torah Lishma ("Torah for its own sake") or to study for the first or third year in rabbinical school at the Conservative Yeshiva, Machon Schecter, the Hebrew Union College and other places.  The midrash teaches, “There is no Torah like that learned in the land of Israel” (Breishit Rabbah 16:7).  On Shabbat morning we sing, “Ki Mi Zion Tetzei Torah u’dvar Adonai Mi’Yerushalayim – Torah goes out from Zion, the word of God from Jerusalem.”  Learning Torah in Israel makes perfect sense.  But it is also ironic.
It is ironic because Israel was not established by the religious; it was established in large part by secular Zionists who despaired at what the overemphasis of study had done to the Jew by the end of the 19th century.  In an 1882 article in the magazine, American Hebrew, Emma Lazarus wrote, “For nineteen hundred years we have been living on an idea; our spirit has been abundantly fed, but our body has been starved…Let our first care to-day be the re-establishment of our physical strength, the reconstruction of our national organism, so that in future, where the respect due to us cannot be won by entreaty, it may be commanded, and where it cannot be commanded, it may be enforced.”  At the Second Zionist Congress, 1898, in Basel, Switzerland, Dr. Max Nordau argued: “We must think of creating once again a Jewry of muscles,” and, in a later article entitled, “Muskeljudentum,” he wrote, “All the elements of Aristotelian physics – light, air, water, and earth – were measured out to us very sparingly.  In the narrow Jewish street our poor limbs soon forgot their gay movements; in the dimness of sunless houses our eyes began to blink shyly; the fear of constant persecution turned our powerful voices into frightened whispers, which rose in crescendo only when our martyrs on the stakes cried out their dying prayers in the face of their executioners.  But now, all coercion has become a memory of the past, and at least we are allowed space enough for our bodies to live again.  Let us take up our oldest traditions; let us once more become deep-chested, sturdy, sharp-eyed men.”  Coming to the modern state of Israel to steep oneself in the Jewish tradition has little to do with the founding ethos of the state; it is an irony of history that so many Jews come here to study when the early Zionists sought to rehabilitate the Jewish body from the sickly state of too many years in the study hall.
I have not included quotations above because I happen to be reading the late 19th century writings of Max Nordau and Emma Lazarus; I found them in a book I am reading called, The Jewish Body, by Melvin Konner  The book is fascinating – “nothing less than an anatomical history of the Jewish people” claims the book jacket – but reading it while in Israel adds texture to his topic.
As one might expect, Konner includes two chapters on the Shoah with a surprising insight: “Even many who know quite a lot about the Holocaust don’t realize that it was in essence a public health project.  Jews were diseased, of course, but more important, they were a disease. ‘Modern science’ taught that genes are the foundation of all health, and Jewish genes were destroying the health of the German race…In essence, this was a public health crisis and German physicians and scientists rose to the occasion.”
I happen to arrive to these two chapters on the Shoah while I take a break from the dancing on the morning of Simchat Torah.  It is, admittedly, a strange text to read in such a setting.  There I am, outside on a bench reading while, inside, Jewish parents carry their children on their shoulders, dancing in circles with the Torah, singing Hebrew songs in ecstatic celebration.  What am I reading?  One passage reads: “According to an affidavit filed by Rudolf Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz, ‘Babies who interfered with the shaving of their mother’s hair were grabbed by the legs and smashed against the wall.  Upon occasion the guard handed the bloody mess to the mother” (Konner, p. 101).  Another passage quotes from the responsa of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry from the Shoah.  It reads, “Since pregnancy was punishable by death, [Oshry] permitted contraception and abortion.  But the very day the edict was put forth – May 8, 1942 – a pregnant Jewish woman passed the ghetto hospital.  A German soldier noticed her belly and shot her through the heart.  Rabbi Oshry was nearby and was urgently asked if a Caesarean section was allowed.  If the baby were dead, would it not be desecrating the mother’s body?  He ruled that the baby should be saved, but the meticulous Germans came to record the name of the murdered woman.  One ‘grabbed the infant and cracked its skull against the wall of the hospital room’” (Konner, p106).
I wipe away tears from my eyes as the 3rd round of singing ends.  Babies.  Jewish babies.  Opposite me is a children’s Torah reading where nine and ten year-olds read from the Torah for one another, flawlessly because they are reading in their native tongue.  Later, I get an aliyah.  Everyone gets an aliyah on Simchat Torah so, to keep things moving, the gabbai recites a shorted mi’sheberach – blessing – for each person who is called for an aliyah.  The shorted blessing is, “May the One Who blessed the parents bless the children, and let us say, ‘Amen.’”  I said, Amen, and think to myself, “God should bless the children, but our tradition also teaches, “don’t depend on a miracle.”  If we want God to protect our children, we ought do it ourselves.”
The next day, Friday, I take our children to spend the day at the pool at Ramat Rachel.  The pool is on the outskirts of Jerusalem and is known to be quite secular. It has a five-lane 25-meter pool, a play area, a kids pool, is open on Shabbat – it costs 5 NIS more to enter on Shabbat – has yoga classes, a weight room, exercise cycles, a hot tub, steam room and a sauna.  Gorgeous young women walk around in bikinis.  A 60 year old man slowly jogs through the grassy area.  My kids enjoy the water slide while I settle into Konner’s next chapter on the Zionist rebirth: “The Body Returns.”  While I’m reading, a 16 or 17 year-old young man in an embarrassingly small bathing suit approaches the rickety sun shade next to me.  He turns up his iPod, gently jiggles the poles, stands on a chair, and jumps up to the cross bar and starts doing pull-ups.  Elderly people sitting underneath the sun shade – which now is shaking a bit with each pull up – look up for a moment, and then go back to their conversations and coffee.   The young man is training, of course, for the army.  I look around at the bikinis and swimming pools, the water slides and young men – all Jewish – and think, this is a long way from an Eastern European study hall, and is exactly what the early Zionists had in mind.

My grandfather, Sam Cohen (z"l) was the official photographer of the Oakand Raiders in the 1970s.  He owned Cohen's Camera Center in Oakland and used to go out with Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange on Sierra Club trips in the 1950s and 60s.  We love photography in our family.  So it is with much fatherly pride that I post a photo taken by our eldest son, Alon (age 11), that he took of a man while we waited for the bus on the way to Machaneh Yehudah (the shuk) last Wednesday before Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Praying for Israel

My Israel blog has been quiet the last few weeks because I have not been in Israel. I had the pleasure of spending the High Holidays with Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina where I will become the rabbi full-time on July 1, 2011. It was quite a contrast (and quite exhausting) to travel from the world of Jerusalem to the world of North Carolina and back again. It was wonderful to be in North Carolina in our future home, and it is wonderful to be back in Jerusalem as the city bustles with people finishing Sukkah decorations, shopping and cooking for holiday meals, and packing the cars for tiyulim around the country.

While at Beth El, I encountered a community that, like much of the American Jewish community, struggles to engage in productive dialogue about Israel. I was reminded of a teaching by the Sfat Emet who explains that the experience of Egypt was not just a physical exile, but an exile of language. That is why we are taught, “whoever increases the telling of our exodus from Egypt is to be praised,” because speech is linked with redemption. On Yom Kippur, I chose to address our community’s struggle to be in productive dialogue about Israel by trying to articulate how our community’s different approaches to Israel must, and do, represent a shared passion for Israel, something of which we can all be proud. While my remarks on Yom Kippur were addressed to Beth El Synagogue in Durham, I hope they will ring true for many congregations and communities in American Jewish life. Enjoy.


A story that was aired on CNN a while back. They heard there was an old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for decades. The CNN reporter goes to the Kotel with a camera crew and there he was! She has a camera crew and they watch him pray and after about 45 minutes she approaches him for an interview and says, “I'm Rebecca Smith from CNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wall and praying?”

“For about 50 years,” the man says.

“50 years!! That's amazing!” says Smith. “What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace,” the man replies. “Peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the hatred to stop and I pray for all our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”

“That’s a beautiful prayer,” she says. “How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I'm talking to a wall.”


Before we say the prayer for Israel, I have an observation about our congregation to share with you: there is some “diversity of opinion” about Israel. I know, I know. You are amazed at my powers of observation. I can already tell that as we say the prayer for the State of Israel, not everyone will be thinking and feeling the same thing, even if the words we say are the same.

Some people this year will be angry at what is wrong with the state of Israel – and there are things that are wrong with the Israel. There is something wrong when, as I wrote about in my blog, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, one of the great halakhic minds of our age and the spiritual leader of the Shas party which was part of Rabin’s government during the Oslo process, calls for the death of the Palestinian leader and death to all Palestinians. As my teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe and others have pointed out “there is something wrong when a woman takes a sefer Torah near the Western Wall and she is arrested and dragged into a police car still clutching the Torah…There is something wrong when 100,000 ultra Orthodox take to the streets to deny the Supreme Court’s rulings about education,” or when the government of Israel refuses to remove settlers who disobey the law, or when the infrastructure of villages comprised of Arab Israeli citizens is unfairly left in disrepair. Some people will say the prayer for Israel, angry at all that is not right with Israel, because for two thousand years we prayed for a return to Zion and a state of our own where we could live out the ideals of the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition. Israel represents those ideals and when there are things that are wrong with Israel, it pains them, and it should pain us too.

Some people will say the prayer for Israel with hope, hope that after nearly two decades of false starts and dashed dreams, that, maybe, finally, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that continued this week will bear fruit and that an agreement might be reached in the year to come. Hope that finally the dream of two States, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, can be achieved, and we can stop sending our children off to war. I dream about how beautiful that dream could be. After a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January of this year, Israel was able to establish the first field hospital from 10,000 miles away, before America could from just a few hundred miles. Israel donated more food and aid than countries several times its size and wealth.  If Israel could do that, imagine what could Israel could do for the world if so many of its resources were not squandered on having to maintain a standing army and defend itself from nations who desire its destruction. Some people will say the prayer for the State of Israel with hope that perhaps this year will be the year when those dreams can come true.

Some people will say the prayer for Israel with fear, fear that we will again be betrayed. Time Magazine recently ran an absolutely absurd cover which featured a Magen David with the line, “why Israel doesn’t care about peace” when poll after poll after poll has shown Israelis desperately want peace and are willing to make concessions and sacrifices to achieve it – most especially because Israeli parents don’t send their 18 year olds to university; they send their children to the army and stay up at night with worry (to read an insightful column on the anti-Semitic overtones of the Time magazine cover story, go to  Some will pray for Israel with fear, afraid that there is no partner for peace, afraid that we are refusing to learn lessons from our past, afraid that the Palestinian leadership won’t actually recognize Israel’s existential right to permanently exist as a Jewish state, and that negotiations and dialogue will be answered (again) with yet another round of violence and bloodshed, not peace and justice.

I know you know that as we pray for Israel, each person in our congregation will attach different thoughts and feelings to this prayer. That is a strength, not a weakness. It is something to celebrate, not hide. Because it shows that we care, that Israel matters, that our love is deep, if complicated. As we pray, this week, and every week, for Israel, I pray for our congregation that Israel never become merely a political issue, that it never be only a matter of the head and not the heart. Israelis are our brothers and sisters; family is never easy :-) which is why we pray :-). God help us :-)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Where We Pray. Torah and Wisdom.

Where We Pray
In the Los Angeles, one prays to the east. In North Carolina, one prays to the east. A while ago, one of my teachers gave me a tip for cloudy days or hotel rooms in strange cities when you might not know which way is east : to carry a compass in my tefillin bag. But in Jerusalem, one doesn’t need a compass; one needs a map. From my apartment in Baka, I need to pray north and a bit east, towards the Old City. In the Old City, one needs to find pray towards the Kotel (the Western Wall) and, a little known fact is, when one is at the Kotel, one should pray facing slightly to the left, towards the Dome of the Rock (the mosque with the gold roof) which contains the “Foundation Stone” and which sits, according to most scholars, directly on what was the spot of the Holy of Holies in the ancient Temples.

Of course, one prays not to a wall, nor to the Foundation Stone, nor to the Holy of Holies. Rather than ignoring our bodies, or trying to get beyond them, in Jewish life we enlist our bodies in the service of God. We sanctify Shabbat by uttering a blessing and drinking wine. We celebrate Sukkot by shaking a lulav and etrog. We bow and sit and stand and turn our bodies towards Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies in prayer to increase our kavanah, our focus and intentionality. But we do these things not because God is physically located somewhere, but because we are located. We are spatial beings.

Rabbi Issac Meir of Gur explains the verse, “Do not climb up to My altar by steps,” (Exodus 20:23) through a parable: Two blind persons wished to reach a rooftop, and tried to figure out how to do it. One of them got himself a ladder, and the other got himself a long plank to serve as an inclined ramp. Both of them ascended. But the difference between the two of them was this: The one who climbed on the ladder knew at each step exactly how much higher he was, and exactly how many steps he still had to ascend. But the one who ascended by the ramp – as long as he was not at the rooftop, he had no idea where he was situated and just how high he was. Similarly here: “Do not climb up to My altar by steps,” that is, do not look about you, just continue to do good works and to engage in the service of God. The altar was a physical place for the service of God. Like the rooftop, it was a spiritual destination, a place of encountering God. For Rabbi Meir, we are all blind in our search for God and, for this reason, the Torah warns against using steps to “arrive” because they cause up to imagine we are closer, or farther away, from “arriving.” The altar is physical and, because it is, it is a metaphor, a tool we need because we inhabit our bodies, but one we must always remember is just a tool towards encountering God, but not God.

We use our bodies in prayer because we are embodied creatures; our bodies are part of who we are. We use them to pray. In the words of the Psalmist, “all my bones will say, “Adonai, who is like You?” Yet to believe God is in Jerusalem risks idolatry, one of only three sins one should, according to Jewish law, rather die than commit. And yet. Benjamin asked me at the Kotel this afternoon, “why do people kiss the Kotel?
There is something risky in the air of Israel. It is called, “kedushat ha’aretz” – the holiness of the land. It is the reason that the seventh Zionist Congress rejected an offer by the British to found a Jewish state in Uganda. It is why there is a special mitzvah to make aliyah, to come live in Israel. It is why when people come to live in Israel, it is called “aliyah,” which means “ascending,” and why, although it is less “pc” to use this phrase these days, leaving Israel to live elsewhere is called, “yerida,” meaning “descent.” A few nights ago, Jen and the boys and I walked up Yehudah Street, crossed four lanes of traffic on Derekh Hevron, picked up a pizza to go, and walked to the tayelet to watch the sunset. Kedushat Ha’Aretz is why, as we sat there looking at the valley between us and the Old City, I told Benjamin that what he was seeing could be the very path that Abraham took with Isaac between Hevron and the Temple Mount on his way to the Akedah that we will read about on Rosh Hashanah next week. As we ate pizza, I explained we might be seeing the sunset from the very spot Abraham and Issac watched the sunset thousands of years ago. I told this to my children knowing that kedushat ha’aretz, the reason we are here and not in Uganda, the source of the beauty and mystery of this place, also risks making an idol of the land. Yet I must teach my children and children don’t learn cerebrally; they don’t fall in love with God and Torah and the Jewish people and Israel only by learning ideas. They fall in love with smells and sounds and tastes and stories. Maimonides taught, “Torah nitna b’lashon Adam” – “The Torah was given in the language of human beings.” God was a great teacher; God spoke to us in a language we could understand. We need a land, for we are people who need to express our relationship to God not merely in the dank smell of an Eastern European yeshiva, or the shell of memories of agricultural holidays. We have a State. It is imperfect and messy. It is theologically wrong to kiss a wall, dangerous for where it might lead and what one becomes willing to do for the wall and the land, forgetting that all these are tools towards something greater. Yet there is something beautiful in kissing the wall.

Torah and Wisdom
Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef is a great halakhic authority, by which I mean someone who possesses an extraordinary breadth of knowledge of Jewish legal texts. He is indisputably knowledgeable and, in an era when haredi authorities heap stringency upon stringency, R. Yosef is often refreshingly lenient and flexible. He also has a history of being politically moderate. Since the late 1980s he has stood in stark contrast to many Orthodox authorities and used the principle of pikuach nefesh, in which all commandments except three are superseded if one can save a life in danger, to advocate first for ceding the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt in the context of a peace agreement in 1979, and later by supporting Yitzhak Rabin’s government during the Oslo process. But theologically, he is an idiot.
In 2000, he said, “The six million Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners, people who transgressed and did all sorts of things that should not be done. They had been reincarnated in order to atone.” Following hurricane Katrina in 2005, Yosef said, “There was a tsunami and there are terrible natural disasters, because there isn’t enough Torah study... Black people [in Hebrew, Yosef used the word “kushim” – a racial epithet in modern Hebrew] reside there [New Orleans]. Blacks will study the Torah? [God said], Let’s bring a tsunami and drown them... Hundreds of thousands remained homeless. Tens of thousands have been killed. All of this because they have no God... Bush was behind the [expulsion of] Gush Katif, he encouraged Sharon to expel Gush Katif... We had 15,000 people expelled here [in Israel], and there [in America] 150,000 [were expelled]. It was God’s retribution... God does not short-change anyone.”

Such comments are so stupid they are unworthy of response. As was his latest comment about Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, said on the eve of the first direct negotiations with the Palestinians in years: “Abu Mazen and all these evil people should perish from this world...God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians.” Yosef’s comments were so stupid, they even merited official condemnation by a U.S. State Department spokesman.

Just because both Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and I both have the title, “rabbi,” I am not worried that someone will associate his views with mine. So why do I care? I care for the same reason that I have not stopped thinking about the yeshiva students who responded rudely and arrogantly to the flight attendant when she asked them to show their tickets for the seats they were sitting in on our USAir flight from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv. I too carried tefillin with me in my carry-on bag and rose to put them on as the sun rose during our flight to Israel. Like Rabbi Yosef, I too see the world through the lens of Jewish texts such as Maimonides and the Shulchan Arukh and Rashi and Nachmanides. Much of their Torah is my Torah; we share much more than we differ, and that Torah should make us better people, not better than others, but better than who we would be without it. The Talmud teaches that the mitzvoth were given to refine our character. What if the cause and effect proves not to be true? The yeshiva students I will soon forget. But when someone of such undeniable learning such as R. Yosef says such hateful, stupid things, our tradition calls it a hillul hashem – a desecration of God’s name – because it undermines the validity of the equation: study of Torah = wisdom. Yosef does not make me doubt the equation; he makes me believe how desperately Israel needs different, wiser rabbis.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Moment at the Beach and Shabbat after Ramah...

And then there are moments when being here is just perfect. We rent a car – a small car, the Hyundai “I-10” or “I-Eser” as the rental car people called it, a car smaller than any I would ever put our family of five into in the United States – and plunge down “Kvish Echad” (Highway 1) from Jerusalem, dodging and weaving all the way to the beach in Herzliya north of Tel Aviv. The water is like a bathtub, soupy warm and salty. The sand is fine under one’s feet. We arrive in the late afternoon; the humid heat of mid-day is breaking and a cool breeze blows off the water. I have been to this beach before. Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot last year, Alon and I came to Israel together so I could officiate at my cousin, Smadar’s, wedding. Our family took an apartment for a week in a high rise next to the beach so we went out to swim almost every day. That week, there were days when the water was so still, I swam for a mile along the coastline like swimming laps in a pool, gently bobbing up and down calm waters that stretched to the horizon. Other days that week, the water was like it is today; a 3 to five foot surf with a rip current even the best swimmers must respect. After a few minutes of riding the waves, you look towards the beach to find out you’ve been moved several hundred feet down the shore.

Jen watches as Ranon and Benjamin play in the shallow water near the shore. Alon and I venture out into the bigger waves. Rami calls over to me; he is worried about Alon being out so far. Who is Rami? Rami lives on a moshav, finished a business meeting in Herzliya, and came out for a swim. I’ve never met him before but he begins to tell me about how strong the waves are and how I should keep a careful eye on Alon – in Israel, everyone’s family. Soon we are talking on the shore and Rami is telling me about all the best beach spots I should be sure to take our family to during the year.

I am back in the water for a few minutes on my own. I swim out beyond where the waves are breaking, lie back in the water and watch the setting sun dance on the waters of the Mediterranean, what the rabbis called, “Yam HaGadol” – the Great Sea. Typically Israeli, there is still a touch of belagon – chaos – even to this serene scene. One area of the beach has signs restricting it to jet skiers; signs that many people absorb so that there are jet skiers zooming out to sea and back to land as others play in the surf. Still American, we obeyed the signs and walked further down the beach towards the part reserved for swimming. Out in the waves, this area is a mix of a mass of surfers, a few boogie boarders, me and Rami. I try to ask a few surfers whether they are surfing up the shoreline and or down, but it’s of little use; a few times I just have to dive to 6 feet to the bottom of the sea, hold on to the sand, and hope not to get clipped by the surf board overhead. Still, the whole scene is, for me, paradise. I think of studies that show that it is not until the second week of vacation that we really begin to rest from the stress of work. I have not been gone from work that long and the transition from Los Angeles to Jerusalem has hardly been stress free, but this moment is, for me, a taste of paradise. I am lying back being held by the waves, my amazing wife and our children are playing in the water and sand, and we are in Israel.

As I type this back in Jerusalem, Shabbat is approaching. It is our first Shabbat of the summer not at Ramah and I can think of no better way to compensate for the loss of not being there than being here. Like at Ramah, here, Shabbat happens. Our children are showering; a meal is prepared. Soon a siren will sound over the city and we will join literally thousands of people walking to shul and then heading home for Shabbat dinner. One of my kids just asked which bottle was shampoo and which one was conditioner; so I helped him read the Hebrew on the bottle; ulpan in the shower.

I cannot finish this entry before Shabbat without noting that tomorrow, as we are in shul and then enjoying a scrumptious meal with friends, Gilad Shalit will turn 24 years old. I talked with my son, Alon, about this today as we walked by the tent outside the Prime Minister’s home set up by his parents to continue to remind the country, and the world, that we will not rest until Gilad is set free. Against international law and standards of human decency, Gilad has been denied even the most basic visits and comforts. This will be the fifth birthday he spends in captivity. Five birthdays. More than five years. To send Gilad a videotaped birthday card that will be screened in the protest tent, send it to:

To read more, go to,7340,L-3939977,00.html.

May God bring Gilad, and all those wrongly imprisoned, home soon.
Shabbat Shalom and Amen.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Crossing the Street

August 25, 2010 / 15, Elul 5770
1521 days, Gilad Shalit in Captivity

I strapped on a helmet and pads and went to do battle, in an Israeli bank. I waited in three lines until, exasperated, I sat with the bank teller, Alon, who admired my son’s Kobe Bryant jersey and, as he explained the intricacies of transferring dollars to a shekel account from an American bank, asked about the LA Lakers and told me, “perhaps after 10 months, you’ll decide to stay?”

“It’ll take me ten months before I get out of this bank,” I thought.

Benjamin and I are crossing Derkeh Hevron, a large street, on the way back from the bank. No traffic engineer would have set out to create the system of lanes on Derekh Hevron. Jerusalem is a city whose streets were clearly laid out well before thought went into traffic patterns. On Derekh Hevron, outside lanes are for regular traffic. But inside the outside lanes are lanes for buses and taxis so that they can travel faster. What this means for pedestrians is that to cross the street, one must cross 4 lanes of traffic, stopping at 2 different islands along the way, each of which are fenced off from the ongoing rush of cars, trucks, buses and taxis. We have already given our sons opening lectures on crazy Israeli drivers and on the importance of always waiting for the “green man” who tells you that it’s okay to cross and, even when the green man is there, of being on constant alert for cars. A green man appears. Benjamin and I obey and cautiously cross lanes for taxis and buses. A bus has stopped halfway into the crosswalk so we move in front of it and scurry towards the second island. Someone crossing the opposite direction walks closer to the bus and, as he does, whacks his head on the mirror of the bus. He stumbles backward, regains his balance, walks around towards the entrance of the bus, and starts hitting the door and screaming at the driver in Hebrew, “Why are you blocking the crosswalk?! I hit my head! Idiot!!!” The driver stares forward and says nothing. People on the bus seem a mixture of disturbed and amused at this unnecessary outburst.

“The bus shouldn’t have been stopped in the crosswalk,” I explain to Benjamin. “But he probably doesn’t need to scream and hit the bus, does he?”

We’ve all had days when we’ve hit our heads and, rather than laugh it off or remain calm, we just lose it. When we do, it’s rarely because we hit our head, but because other things are bothering us and hitting our head sets us off. As we wait for the next green man, the experience of being in Israel begins its work on me and I begin to think about why this man may have lost it, and the man on Derekh Hevron becomes (quite unfairly) a symbol in my mind of the state of the Israelis in the state of Israel. Are Israelis frustrated? Why?

The most realistic explanation is the heat. The heat, of late, is stifling. We arrived to Jerusalem – a good 15 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the country – on a day that locals tell us represents a break in the heat. It is 32.5 Celsius, 90.5 Fahrenheit. In Eilat and the North, it was 46 degrees Celsius in the shade – that’s 115 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to make anyone hit a bus! I heard rumors Eilat hit 49 degrees. But I wonder for a moment if the man hit the bus not because of the heat, but because part of the experience of being in Israel is frustrated hopes and dreams.

As we taxied for takeoff on the flight here, my 4-year old delighted the woman in front of us with his barely controllable enthusiasm, “soon we’re going to fly to Israel!!” A few weeks ago, Benjamin remarked to a friend about our upcoming year, “we’re not going to visit. We’re going home, because Israel is home to all the Jewish people.” Israel in their minds is a paradise, a place of hopes and dreams. That is perfectly appropriate for children, but it does not last. What must Benjamin have thought as he turned around and, in his first few hours in Israel, he witnessed an enraged man hitting the bus and screaming in Hebrew at the bus driver?

I pray his love will evolve. That he will learn the language and learn to feel at home. That he will remember not only the enraged man banging on the bus, but the fact that in the first moments of our arrival, someone already invited us over to their home for seudah shlisheet (a late afternoon Shabbat meal) and many people have stopped by with offers for help. That a friend filled our refrigerator with food so that when we arrived, we would already feel at home. That another friend arranged for David and Uri to meet us, not only so we wouldn't get taken by strange taxi drivers, but so that we'd be taken care of in the first few hours of our year in Israel. I pray Benjamin remembers how a neighbor lent us a dining room table. That other neighbors, perfect strangers, helped us move our 15 bags from the taxicabs to our new home. Perhaps he already forgot the man hitting the bus, or the bus driver who couldn't be bothered that someone hit his head. But if not, I pray after a year that Israel will not be a fantasy but will be real, both sour and sweet, and that his love will grow deeper.

Walking DistanceWe have no car yet; I like this. We’ve walked to the pizza place, to the grocery, to the pool, to school. I brought a bike and got it reassembled. Having it will broaden my horizons, make a few other parts of the city accessible – though biking in Jerusalem must be done carefully (see the part about crazy Israeli drivers above). But we live walking distance to the boys’ schools. Walking distance to shopping. Walking distance to Mandel where I will study. In Los Angeles, there was always something freeing, truly restful, about walking on Saturday while the rest of the world drove by. Walking reminds you how large the world really is because it takes so much effort to go just a short way; how much effort is required to carry groceries. Walking humbles.

Grassy Parks in the Middle EastThose of you who know Jerusalem will remember that near Pardes (near Emek Refaim and Pierre Koenig) there is a set of old train tracks. Those tracks are being ripped up and the area is becoming a long stretch of park to sit and enjoy. The area is still under construction but some of it is done and it will eventually be really great; a stretch of open space in a city with too little. As I saw this project for the first time, I noticed that it is being done with grass and I thought to myself how the use of grass reflects a European sensibility since grass uses too much water for the Middle East and that large swaths of grass don’t really belong here (like the golf course in Caesarea). But I also thought, “it’s a small enough area. You have to live too. And a park in Jerusalem is a good thing for the soul. Perhaps that man would feel a bit less rage if there were more parks to enjoy. Beauty. Places to play. These things too have a place when building a State, even if there are more efficient uses of water.”

Israel Reading in IsraelI was too busy running camp over the summer to read much. So I collected a bunch of articles to get caught up on. On the last stretch of the flight I started an article from the Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg ( called, “The Point of No Return.” It seems to have been making the rounds amongst folks who follow Israel and is one of those articles it is important to have read. It is about the Iranian nuclear threat and the prospects of a pre-emptive strike against Iran by Israel or the United States. At 5am this morning, our four year-old and I are up together as the sun rises over Jerusalem. He watches Backyardigans in Hebrew with a mixture of pleasure at having found a familiar TV show and confusion at the fact that it’s in Hebrew. As he watches TV and my wife and other children sleep, I am struck how reading such articles in Jerusalem is a different experience than reading them in Los Angeles. I always care deeply about politics in the Middle East; having an emotional connection to the news is not new for me. But consider the following sentences:

“The Iranian leadership’s own view of nuclear dangers is perhaps best
exemplified by a comment made in 2001 by the former Iranian president Ali Akbar
Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who entertained the idea that Israel’s demise could be
brought about in a relatively pain-free manner for the Muslim world. ‘The use of
an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely while [a nuclear
attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damages,” Rafsanjani
said. It is this line of thinking, which suggests that rational deterrence
theory, or the threat of mutual assured destruction, might not apply in the case
of Iran, that has the Israeli government on a knife’s edge.”
Reading those sentences while you are here, where the missiles would strike (God forbid), sharpens one’s attunement to the news.