April 2009

A new podcast in honor of Israel Independence Day that explores the idea of home through several texts. 15 minutes.


Couldn’t say it better myself, though I would add some things about attitudes towards knowledge, particualrly in the question of cooperation between the hard sciences and the humanities.

We are wrapping up our two weeks in Israel, and preparing to return to America. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of spending time in Israel is the way in which Jewish life is literally embodied here. As my kids’ book, Sammy Spider’s Trip to Israel, reminds them (and us): A trip to Israel is a sensory experience, full of sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes. While Diasporic life certainly contains these elements, they are accentuated in Israel, where Jewish life is first and foremost a physical enterprise, and secondarily an aesthetic and intellectual one.

Rashi’s opening comment on this week’s double parasha, Tazria-Metzora, reminds us that Jewish life is a deeply physical enterprise. After detailing the laws of animals (as in which ones are kosher to eat, which were enumerated at the end of Parshat Shemini last week), the Torah begins its discussion of human bodily laws: what happens when men and women have certain emissions and secretions, when women bear children, etc. Rashi explains that this follows the fundamental order of Creation: Just as at In the Beginning animals were created before humans, so here the laws are given in the same order.

In my work with Hillel one of the basic building blocks of our trade is immersion experiences: trips, often to foreign countries, that create a high-impact experience. While Jewish life in the Diaspora can take us out of our regular time–as when we are walking to shul for Yom Kippur while our non-Jewish neighbors go about their day–an immersion experience takes us out of our space. Abraham Joshua Heschel argued in his wonderful book The Sabbath that Judaism is about time more than space. But it ain’t necessarily so: We find at Hillel that travel experiences are on the whole much more powerful than temporal ones. Despite modernity’s best attempts to separate us from our bodies, Zionism has reminded us that our bodies are as much a part of our being as our minds and souls.

Shabbat shalom.

My niece Maayan, 9, playing Hatikva on the recorder at a family lunch last week. Notice how everyone is standing by the end, even some people passing by in the park.

On one of our first days here, another former student came to visit us at the hotel where we were spending the end of Passover with my family. As the last day of the holiday is one on which Jewish law forbids the use of electricity, we had agreed to meet up sometime in the afternoon. This particular student, not ritually observant, had spent the morning in Bethlehem. The kibbutz where we were staying is at Ramat Rahel, at the southernmost tip of the Green Line near Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority is literally across the street.

As we were out in the afternoon with my kids playing on a playground, I spotted this former student walking up the road to the kibbutz, but on the wrong side of the fence. We tried to figure out a way for her to get in, and after some walking down the length of the fence we found a spot where she could scale the fence and jump over, with my help. Border crossers or rule-breakers, depending on your frame of reference.

Natalie asked me at one point whether I thought one day the separation barrier–of which we saw plenty while driving on roads in or near the West Bank–would be thought of like the Berlin Wall. Yes and no. One hopes that one day two peoples will live peacefully together, and perhaps with time coexistence will become ever more possible. At the same time, the wall/fence/barrier was built at a time when it was needed, and it worked, at least as far as the Israelis are concerned: We rode the buses this week when we never rode them five years ago.

I remember, eleven years ago, traveling to Bethlehem with a friend to tutor Arab university students in English. It was a year of self-discovery for me, when I felt completely liberated to “be as Jewish as I wanted to be,” manifesting all the outward signs of my Jewishness that I had tucked in while living in America. But in traveling to Bethlehem, I tucked them in again: my tzitit in my pants, my kippah in my pocket. We passed through an army checkpoint in both directions, and a soldier came on the bus to check our passports.

At one point, one of the women we were working with asked me if I was Arab. I said no, but didn’t tell her I was Jewish. “You look like you could be an Arab,” she said. I remember on the bus ride back thinking how close these two peoples seemed–literally a few miles apart, so similar in so many aspects of custom and culture. And yet how far apart they were at the same time. I got back to Jerusalem, took out my tzitzit, put on my kippah. And those were in the heady days of Oslo, when peace was “right around the corner.”

On Tuesday, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Natalie, the kids, and I traveled from Rehovot to Haifa to meet a long-lost cousin, a nephew of Natalie’s grandmother. Ruven Schneider, now 88, was everything you would expect from the Jewish People’s Greatest Generation: he fought in the Red Army in World War II, came to Palestine and fought in the Palmach, and settled in Haifa. He was a consummate host, baking for us and cooking dinner and insisting that we eat. His son, Arie, married a woman of Tunisian descent, Ruti, whom he met while a soldier. They have four beautiful children and one new grandson.

I find it becomes very hard, at moments like this, to be a died in the wool secular-humanist, that is, someone who believes that we have to treat all people exactly the same. Of course, I say that, and I believe it. And yet, on that basis, why should I feel this special connection (in my own case, through marriage) to someone I’ve never met and may never meet again? Why should he want to show me and my family hospitality? Why would I even feel comfortable entrusting my children with him if need be?

I asked this of one of my former students with whom we met up for dinner in Jerusalem last night. She also has a lot of family in Israel, and has spent much of this year finding them and spending time with them. “It’s because we share a common story,” she says. “It’s as though I’m seeing an alternate vision of me: if so-and-so hadn’t decided to come to America and not Israel, I would be you.”

We are bound by our stories–they’re what make us who we are. They are what unite us with some and potentially divide us from others.

My niece Hadas came into the TV room tonight to watch her usual evening edition of ‘House’ (I think they’re up to season 2 here; they show it every night), only to find that every channel was honoring Holocaust Remembrance Day either by showing the official state ceremony or suspending programming in deference to the state ceremony. So she went upstairs to read. I watched a bit of the ceremony, which felt familiar: poems, songs, Psalms recited by the chief rabbis, survivors and their families.

Later on one of the news programs had a long, 60 Minutes-style segment on the descendents of the Bielskis, the subjects of the movie ‘Defiance.’ Some of them live in Israel, and two of the American grandsons (in their 20s) have made aliyah. The most significant moment came as they toggled between scenes of Zushya Bielski crying over the loss of his wife and child, and images of one of his grandsons taking target practice in an IDF uniform. For me the scene raised all the issues of how the Holocaust is part of Israeli and Jewish memory, both positive and negative, some of which I wrote about in an earlier post.

What would Israel be like if, for instance, its Declaration of Independence didn’t mention the Holocaust, or if every Jewish high school junior didn’t go to Poland for a class trip? Others have written about this much more knowledgably than I can, but the question strikes me as inescapable and essential to ask while I’m here. (Roger Cohen, with all the caveats, asks the same question today.)

Fittingly, Natalie and I are traveling to Kiryat Atta tomorrow to meet the sole surviving son of her grandmother’s sister. We talked about how we want to get there, and decided that it would be best to be on the road at 10 a.m. when the sirens go off all over the country. Drivers stop their cars and get out of them to stand at attention as the siren blasts for two minutes. And then people resume their day. As my dad likes to say, the only things changing are the birds and the traffic lights. It’s a powerful moment, and we want our kids to see it (though we’re not quite sure how we’re going to explain it to them just yet–they’re still too young for this.)

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