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.)

The Tel Aviv Cab Driver story is its own genre. My favorite is the one related by Zev Chafets in his book Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men (1986) about pulling up next to Ezer Weizmann before the 1977 elections that brought Likud to power. The punchline is that Wezimann asks the cab driver how old he is and if he can still do what men now take Viagra to help them with. When the driver answers of course he can still do it, Weizmann replies, “Then on election day I want you to [do that thing that Viagra helps you do] and take it to the polls to f— Labor.”

The Israeli cab driver is sort of equivalent to a barber in the U.S., only in reverse: Where the barber gets everyone’s stories, the cab driver simply tells you his stories. He’s more about talking than listening. Perhaps for this reason, the cab driver seems to represent Israeli conventional wisdom among diasporic Jews.

All of which made my conversation with a cab driver in Tel Aviv the other day the more remarkable. We were driving from Tel Aviv University to the Port (Namal) for lunch, when the driver asks me (in Hebrew, as was the rest of the conversation) if I’m from America. Yes, Chicago, I say. What do you think of Obama, he asks. I start to get a little nervous, so I hedge: “Well, I voted for him. But we’ll see.”

And then things go in an unexpected direction: “How did the American people vote for Bush twice? What are they, stupid? Obama, he’s straight. Bush is a liar. What did he leave behind? War in Iraq. War in Afghanistan. The economy in the pits.” Well, I tell him, from time to time the American people make poor decisions.

He tells me that the whole world wanted Obama, only in Israel did they want McCain. “Look at the rest of the world. They don’t want war. They want peace.” Do you think Israelis don’t want peace, I ask him. “Sometimes I think we don’t,” he says.

My next question has to be about Gaza. What did you think of Gaza, I ask. “Look, they were shooting rockets at us. They killed, what, 4 Israelis? And for this we killed in children alone 400? And another 800 civilians? It’s not only terrorists who live in Gaza. There are people there. You call this proportionate?”

He apologizes if he offended me. I assure him he didn’t. I ask him if he thinks most Israelis feel the way he does. “No,” he responds. “The media screws with their minds. They make us think that all Arabs are our enemies.”

We reach the port, and he sees my kippah and says, “You’re religious?” with a smile on his face. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” I again assure him I didn’t. We go to lunch.

This Shabbat marks the bar mitzvah of my nephew, Yonatan Tal Feigelson. We are in Israel for the occasion, and the dvar Torah below is in his honor.

An interesting adjective used to describe the sacrifices at the beginning of Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) is tamim. Aaron is instructed to bring a calf and a ram that are tamim, which we learn elsewhere means without blemish (see Ibn Ezra on Lev. 1:3). I do not necessarily want to go through an entire etymology of tamim in reference to the sacrificial system, as much as to point out its usage here and attempt to draw from it some additional significance.

The first instance of the word tamim in the Torah is in the introduction of Noah: “Noah was a righteous, whole (tamim) man in his generation.” (Gen. 6:9) We encounter the word again in the commandment to Abram to circumcise the male members of his household: “And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El-Shaddai, walk before me and be whole (tamim).’” (Gen. 17:1) While the midrashic and medieval commentators ascribe a number of meanings to the word, the straightforward definition is whole or complete, as Rashi comments on the instance involving Abram: “Be complete (shalem) in all of my tests for you.” In this sense the use of tamim for both Noah and Abraham, and for the sacrifices in parshat Shemini, are the same: both the people and the animals are to be whole, complete.

I would propose that the word for us today connotes another translation: integrity. To have integrity is to be whole, complete, to be integrated. Yet when we introduce the idea of integrity, we assume in the background the possibility of dis-integration, the possibility of separate parts. In this sense the idea of tamim as applied to animals and people is different: An animal with a bodily defect cannot necessarily be repaired, but a person with a spiritual or ethical defect can repair him- or herself. Indeed, it is through the process of circumcision that Abram is understood to become tamim—that is, through changing an aspect of his person. He is not born complete. Thus, as applied to people, I would argue that integrity is a better translation of temimut, the state of being tamim. To be tamim is to live in wholeness with the possibility of being separated.


My family and I left on a two-week trip to Israel on Sunday. I will try to keep notes of my observations as time permits. Here’s my first entry:

One of the cornerstones of the work of Hillel is the idea of immersion experiences. Almost uniformly, these focus on travel. Birthright Israel and alternative student breaks form the core of these experiences, but overnight retreats serve a similar purpose. The idea is that by getting people out of their usual space, they become open to a host of other possibilities. One can look at everything from Odysseus to Chaucer to Gilligan’s Island to gain insight into the power of journeys to shape the soul. But the idea is certainly as old as the notion of pilgrimage, and given that my family and I are on our way to Jerusalem during Passover, that image resonates most deeply. This is the first time we’ve made a trip like this with our kids as potty-trained and sentient beings. So we’re aiming to leverage the educational and identity-shaping possibilities of the trip. Journeys require documentation, so Natalie bought both kids journals and cheap digital cameras. And they require preparation, so we have been talking with them for months about it and asking them what they expected and what they wanted to do on the trip. (This gave way to a good introductory question at our seder the other night, when I asked, “What is a favorite seder memory, or, what is something you want to remember about this seder?” The Torah understands the power of prospective memory–that we can have a hand in shaping the story that will be told about an event or a decision.) There is a powerful emotional sensation that arises when one is taken out of one’s usual surroundings, in particular in forming bonds between the people sharing the journey. The trick comes in sustaining the memory and the power of that shared experience upon return (see Birthright Next and the Book of Judges for exemplars of the difficulties in pulling this off).

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