Category Archives: Israel Jewry

Comfort Food

by Gili Haimovich (Gyva’taim, Israel)

I practice on my kitten what I would answer

If I would ever have a child and he or she would ask me:

“Mum, where do your words come from”?

Well, my Canadian kitten,

My English words come from above,

From the emptiness.

From the void space

In my mouth.

Between the upper and the lower

Gums.

“But where does your Hebrew come from, Mum? With me you always speak Hebrew”.

Well, my child,

(The child would not be Canadian nor Israeli, but just a child),

My Hebrew is lying in my tummy,

Like comfort food.

Waiting for you.

Gili Haimovich is an international poet and translator who writes in both Hebrew and English. She has six volumes of poetry in Hebrew. Her most recent, Landing Lights (Iton 77 Publishing House, 2017), received a grant from Acum, as did her previous book. She also received a grant nominating her as an outstanding artist by the Israeli Ministry of Immigrant Absorption (2015). Her poetry in English is featured in her chapbook, Living on a Blank Page (Blue Angel Press, 2008) and in numerous journals and anthologies, such as World Literature Today, Poetry International, International Poetry Review, LRC – Literary Review of Canada, Poem Magazine, Asymptote, Drain Magazine, Blue Lyra, Circumference and TOK: Writing the New Toronto as well as main Israeli journals, newspapers and anthologies including The Most Beautiful Poems in Hebrew (Yedioth Ahronot Books, 2013). You can visit her website for more information about her and her work:  www.poetryon.com.

“Comfort Food” originally appeared in Drain Magazine, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

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Filed under Canadian Jewry, Family history, Israel Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, poetry

Come in, Come in

Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

Walking by the Kotel
Rabbi Machlis calls out
to the Kenyan and Chinese tourists,
Shabbat Shalom, Shabbat Shalom!

Yesterday two soldiers
were stabbed here in the Arab shuk.
I ask the rabbi if he is concerned
but he says, No, I am with you.

We meet a Muslim beggar.
The rabbi invites him along.
At his home, people are already gathered.
I squeeze into a corner seat.

Rabbi Machlis booms:
Come in, come in,
there is plenty of room.

We crowd around tables.
The homeless man, tourist,
soldier, Christian, Muslim, and Jew
eat cholent, challah, and gefilte fish.

Each one of you
is our special guest,
he says. We are in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Machlis calls me the scuba diver
—he knows I love to dive in the Red Sea—
and asks me to speak next.

Brad Jacobson lives in Columbia, MO, where he teaches ESL. Every summer, he volunteers in Israel. He enjoys hiking in the desert and diving in the Red Sea.  His poetry has been published in Tikkun, Poetica, Sar-El, Voices Israel, and other publications.

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Pages from My Mother’s Diary: A Bus Trip to Ashkelon

By Naomi Gross (Tel Aviv, Israel) and Shira Sebban (Sydney, Australia)

My sister and I never expected to find the diary of our late mother, Naomi Gross. Indeed, for many years, we did not even know of its existence. It was only when we sorted through our mother’s possessions after her death in July 2013 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease, that we came across the non-descript, navy-bound volume, stashed away and seemingly long forgotten in a drawer of her writing desk.

The diary reads like a film script, relating experiences in the Israel of the mid-1950s of a young woman whom I did not recognize. After almost a decade’s absence, she had returned to her birthplace from Australia, where she had gone to join her father after World War II, only to discover that she had become somewhat of a stranger in her own land.

At the same time, and especially in the wake of the most recent deterioration in relations between Israel and the Palestinians, it is sobering to read a personal account of the early trials and tribulations, anguish and vulnerability of the new State of Israel.

Now, nearly sixty years later, I have decided to bring the yellowed pages filled with my mother’s distinctive script to life once more, recreating stories from her diary, which has become one of my most cherished possessions.

 Shira Sebban

*******

There was not a soul in sight. Surrounded by orange groves, my mother expressed her growing unease, “recalling some unfortunate encounters workers had with Arab infiltrators some months ago.”

I picture her, as she was then, an attractive and bright 20-something student, alone – except for her cousin Miriam – in the hot afternoon stillness. She would have been unable to get the image of those poor workers out of her mind. What if she was attacked too?

The infamous date of 4 October 1956 must have been etched in her memory. Only six months previously, five Israeli construction workers had been killed in an ambush in broad daylight on a desert highway near the Dead Sea, just a few hours away from Ashkelon.

Why on earth had she agreed to visit the South in the first place? It had been sheer madness to try to walk to the 5000-year-old site of ancient Ashkelon from the beach cafe, and they were still two kilometers away from the excavations.

The term, “infiltrator,” with its connotations of menace and evil, has recently been revived to refer to African asylum seekers to Israel. Its origins date back to the early 1950s, when numerous attacks on Israeli settlements culminated in the 1954 “Prevention of Infiltration Law,” which defined Palestinians and citizens of surrounding Arab states, who entered Israel illegally, as “infiltrators,” punishable by law, especially if armed or accused of crimes against people or property.

How many incidents had there been in the past 18 months since my mother’s return to her birthplace from Australia after almost a decade’s absence? Five people had been massacred in the previous two months alone: on 18 February 1957, two civilians had been killed by landmines next to Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on the southern border of the Gaza Strip; on 8 March, a shepherd from Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, not far from Ashkelon, had been murdered in a nearby field, while just two days prior to her excursion, on 16 April, two guards had been killed at Kibbutz Mesilot in the North.

No, she decided firmly, she and her cousin would have to miss out on seeing the Neolithic excavations recently undertaken by French archeologist Jean Perrot; it just wasn’t worth the risk. They would then have joined the disorderly, long queue catching the Egged bus back to Tel Aviv. The two-hour trip would be a nightmare, she thought as they boarded, jostling in the narrow aisle against laborers standing cramped two or even three abreast after a hard day’s work.

It had not been as overcrowded that morning, when at least she had managed to find a seat next to Miriam. They were taking every opportunity to spend time together, renewing the strong bonds of their childhood friendship. Born and bred in Tel Aviv, Miriam was eager to inspect recent developments undertaken by the new State, remaining ever hopeful that her enthusiasm would somehow rub off onto her more-worldly cousin.

A high-pitched voice rang out above the din of the other bus passengers:

“Whose idea was it to throw Joseph into the well?”

“Was it Judah?”

The tentative reply was met with squeals of laughter.

“Wrong! You lose a point.”

My mother turned. “The seats behind us were occupied by four Yemenite girls, 15-17 years old, probably recent arrivals to the country,” she subsequently noted in her diary. “Full of joy of life, laughing and continuously talking in squeaky voices, cracking small black seeds and throwing shells on the floor of the bus. They were conducting a biblical quiz concerning the story of Joseph and his brothers in a childish manner, heavily taxing their minds and enjoying it tremendously.”

She was recalling the rescue mission, Operation Magic Carpet, which had airlifted most of Yemen’s 50,000 Jews to young Israel between June 1949 and September 1950 in what had been the first wave of Jewish immigration from the Muslim world.

The exuberance so evidently displayed by the girls would have contrasted sharply with the largely discontented demeanor of most of the other passengers. She glanced out the window and found the land “flat and uninteresting,” the monotony of the green fields “relieved here and there by red and yellow spring flowers.”

Ashkelon itself had been a disappointment – “An old Arab town with one main street containing the shops,” she would write, “now occupied mainly by migrants.”

That “old Arab town” was al-Majdal Asqalan, established under Ottoman rule in the 16th century. A commercial and administrative center, it had been part of the area occupied by the Egyptian army during the War of Independence, when its Arab population, about 11,000 strong, had largely fled, ostensibly temporarily, to nearby Gaza, before the town itself had been captured by Israeli forces in early November 1948. Less than two years later, the remaining Arab population, which had been confined to a fenced-off “ghetto,” had been transferred mostly to Gaza.

Meanwhile, demobilized soldiers and new immigrants, including survivors from the displaced persons camps in Europe and Jewish refugees from Yemen, Iran and Iraq, had been moving into what was Israel’s first development town. After several name changes, it had officially become Ashkelon in 1956 – only the year before my mother’s visit with her cousin. They had not lingered long, boarding another bus for the ten-minute ride west to the recently incorporated seaside township of Afridar.

Touted as a South African-style garden city, Miriam had long wanted to visit Afridar, which was being built on a large tract of land granted to the South African Zionist Federation by Labor Minister Golda Meir. Even its name sounded exotic, an amalgam of “Africa” and the Hebrew word, “darom,” meaning “south.” But as her description reveals, my mother had found the town center frankly uninspiring: on the right was a cinema, while on the left stood “a museum, library, health center, city municipality, all in one building. Likewise there is a row of about ten shops, comprising the entire shopping center, also a café. There is a tall tower with a clock at its top, and there, at the bottom, is the information bureau.”

The buildings, she conceded, were quite attractive, constructed of “colored bricks, with a somewhat oriental touch,” and “surrounded by lawns and flowers,” although multiple official notices forbidding visitors from walking on the grass spoiled the overall effect.

Looking for a place to have lunch, I picture the two women entering the information bureau.

“Welcome to Afridar,” the official behind the counter – clearly a new South African immigrant – would have intoned in stilted Hebrew. “This is the first modern neighborhood of Ashkelon, and the first, and up to now, only Anglo-Saxon settlement in Israel!”

“It’s impossible to utter any genuine impressions or opinions in front of the local people,” my mother would later record in her diary. “They will bite your head off as they can’t take any criticism. Still, the overall impression is a poor one, which might change with the enlargement of the place.”

She described the sea from a distance as appearing “beautiful, very blue and calm.” Small single- and two-family homes with red tiled roofs, arched front balconies, and spacious private gardens dotted the broad dirt road, an occasional old, rickety bus ambling past. Upon closer inspection, however, she expressed her disappointment as “the shore was poorly looked after, the sand none too clean and quite uninviting,” the only saving grace being the “most beautiful purple, yellow and orange wildflowers” growing in abundance.

At that time, the coastal dunes were quite deserted, save for two buildings, one a hotel and the other a café, which stood closer to the edge of the sandstone cliff running along the beach. The hotel was none other than the Dagon Inn, which had been established in 1954 by the Government-owned Afridar Development Corporation. Sharing the name of the Philistine god Dagon, whose temple Samson knocked down in biblical times, the Inn was one of the South’s first hotels, its then 16 vacation cabins even attracting the Prime Minister himself, David Ben-Gurion.

Its sole neighbor, Café Maurice, had proved to be the perfect place to have lunch, which was ” beautifully prepared and exquisitely served,” my mother wrote, although “the bill was tremendous – 12 lirot for both of us, which was very high for Israel, but perhaps worth it.”

“The place belongs to my parents,” the waiter had told the women in response to their compliments. “They’ve been in Israel for ten years – lucky for me as I was kicked out of Egypt last month.”

“What were you doing there? Your English is excellent,” my mother noted.

“Thank you, I speak five other languages as well. I studied hotel management in Switzerland and then owned some big hotels in Egypt. It was a great lifestyle – working six months a year and travelling around the world for the other six. But it’s all over now – I left with 20 pounds to my name. I’m leaving for Brazil soon. Prospects look good there. Israel’s a lovely place for idealists, but it’s got nothing much to offer me. Even if you have great talents to share, the country can’t cope yet.”

The waiter was part of the “second exodus from Egypt” after World War II, an expulsion that lasted for around 20 years, reaching its peak in the wake of the 1956 Sinai Campaign. Of Egypt’s once 80,000-strong, multicultural Jewish community, 34,000 would immigrate to Israel, the rest leaving for France, Brazil, North America, the United Kingdom and Australia. Forced to leave their property behind, many of these largely middle-class refugees were deported with little more than the clothes on their backs, their travel documents stamped “One way – no right to return.”

On the trip back to Tel Aviv, a frail, elderly lady had squeezed onto the bus, complaining of a sick heart, but no one was prepared to give up their seat. Huddled in the aisle, my mother and Miriam must have watched in disbelief as the mother of a little boy, nonchalantly sitting next to her, vociferously stood her ground, to the loud protestations of those around her.

“I paid for his ticket! He doesn’t have to get up for anyone!”

In a vain attempt to block out what my mother described as the ensuing “lively discussion,” peppered with frequent swearing, the cousins strove to share their impressions of the day.

“Miriam was most enthusiastic with all she saw,” my mother wrote. “Perhaps patriotism makes one so. As for me, I couldn’t work up a spark of enthusiasm or particular pleasure. Pity, I seem to be missing something vital.”

For other stories based on my mother’s diary see: http://jewishliteraryjournal.com/creative-non-fiction/blood-in-the-market/ and http://shirasebban.blogspot.com.au/2015/08/sordid-beauty.html

Shira Sebban is a writer and editor based in Sydney, Australia. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, she previously worked in publishing and taught French to university students. She now serves as vice-president of Emanuel School, a pluralistic and egalitarian Jewish Day School. Her work has appeared in online and print publications including the Jewish Literary Journal, Jewish Daily Forward, Australian Jewish News, Times of Israel, Eureka Street, Alzheimer’s Reading Room and Online Opinion, as well as The Jewish Writing Project. You can read more of her work at shirasebban.blogspot.com.au

 

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An Unexpected Discovery

by Laurie Rappeport (Safed, Israel)

Several years ago I became involved in guiding a group of students who were studying the history of the American Jewish Experience through music. The kids were examining Jewish America of the 21st century.

Toward this end they explored the traditional liturgy and music of successive waves of immigrants who made their way to America’s shores over the past 400 years. It was probably one of the most interesting subjects that I’ve ever tackled with a group of students.

The project first brought me into contact with the Milken Archives of American Jewish Music, which provided the students with a significant percentage of our research material. Much of the Milken material relates to the first Jewish immigrants who arrived in South Carolina from Brazil in the mid-1600s. These people were refugees from the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions and, after fleeing to South America, were forced to run again when the Inquisition reached South America.

The students had a wonderful time and I put the experience in the back of my mind until recently when I suddenly discovered that the history of the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain and forced to wander the world, looking for sanctuary, was, in fact, my own history.

Until that time, as far as I knew, I was a bona fide gefilte fish and kreplach Jew with roots in Poland, Belerus and Lithuania. However, it turns out that one of my grandfathers, who hailed from England, was the descendent of Dutch Jews who were almost certainly of Spanish origin.

In 2008 I received an email from a man in New Zealand. Geoff had been born in Birmingham England and immigrated to New Zealand in the ’50s with his father and brother. However, recent documents had come to light that indicated that Geoff had, in fact, been adopted, and that his biological father had been Jewish.

In following through the family history that my family knew, as well as the history that Geoff had been able to determine, we were able to ascertain that Geoff and my mother were second cousins. A subsequent DNA test with my mother’s brother confirmed the relationship.

Throughout the following year Geoff showed great interest in his Jewish ancestry. Still living in New Zealand, he read voraciously about Judaism and Israel and contacted me on Skype several times a week to find out my take on the things that he was reading. In 2009 Geoff and his wife, Jenny, came to Israel to meet the family and attend my son’s wedding.

Geoff and Jenny continued to research our family’s history but they were also fascinated by Judaism. They returned to Israel the following year to celebrate Rosh Hashana with us and in February 2011, under Israel’s Law of Return, made aliyah. To say that no one was more surprised than I was is an understatement!

Geoff and Jenny joined an ulpan course to learn Hebrew and completed a formal conversion program in February 2012 with a giur and a Jewish wedding celebration as a new Jewish couple. The story of their return to Judaism was featured as a Friday spread in Israel’s largest newspaper. They bought a home and now live a 20-minute walk from my house in Safed in northern Israel.

Geoff has continued to explore our common genealogy and discovered a number of interesting details of our family’s life in England. The majority of England’s Jews are, like America’s Jews, descended from Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (One interesting note: many of these immigrants had intended to make their way to America but, when the ships docked on the eastern shore of Scotland or England, were tricked by the sea captains into thinking that they had arrived in America and never completed the train ride that would have taken them to the western shore and their second boat to America.)

What Geoff discovered was that, in at least two lines of our family, our lineage can be traced back to Dutch Jews who were welcomed to England by Oliver Cromwell in the late 1600s. (Jews were expelled from England in 1266 and were not allowed back into the country until Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, invited them to return.)  The majority of the Jews in Amsterdam during that period were descendants of Jews who had fled Spain in 1492.

Suddenly, my students’ project took on a whole new meaning as I realized that the art, music, traditions and customs of the Mediterranean and Sephardic world comprised my own heritage as well.

There’s still much left to determine about our family’s history, but access to the increasing availability of both English and Dutch records may open the door to new discoveries. One far-flung cousin was able to find her ancestor’s ketubah in Italy while another break-away branch of the family has been located in Australia and New Zealand. It turns out that one of their descendants lives up the road from me in the Golan Heights!

In the meantime, Geoff and Jenny have become core members of our local synagogue. (Geoff arrives every Shabbat morning at 8:00 am. I told him that, in my entire life, I’d never made it to shul before 10:00 am.) Their latest project is wine-making, which they undertook so that, when they spend time in Italy (which they do every summer), they’ll have plenty of kosher wine.

Laurie Rappeport is originally from Detroit. She is an online educator who works with Jewish day school and afternoon school students to teach them about Judaism and Israel. She frequently uses the Milken Archives as a resource for historical studies about Judaism. 

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London-Munich, No Connection

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

There are 569 miles between London and Munich.
You can get there by
British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and American.
The flight takes 1 hour and 9 minutes,
and costs about 240 euros.
Both are modern cities
with busy financial centers.
Both held Olympics 40 years apart
with pomp and pageantry in
opening and closing ceremonies.
England won 4 gold medals in Munich;
Germany won 11 gold medals in London.
At the end of the games in Great Britain, in ’12
all the athletes left via Heathrow Airport.
At the end of the games in Germany, in ’72
not all of the athletes left via Munich Airport.
There are 569 miles between London and Munich,
but between the two cities, there is no connection,
no remembering, no memorials,
just distance,
just 569 miles.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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You Can’t Have Enough Good Luck

by Harriet Kessler (Woodbury Heights, NJ)

I’m fond of hamsas. I have a ceramic hamsa on both my office and kitchen walls, and I have several silver hamsa pendants on chains that I wear around my neck. Most were bought during visits to Israel. But the newest, a sterling pendant with emerald, seed pearl and mother-of-pearl decoration, came from a Boulder, CO, store where I shopped while visiting a friend. (It was made in Israel of course.)

“Nice hamsa,” a colleague said the first time I wore it to work. “But I didn’t know you were that religious or superstitious.” The comment surprised me. I thanked him and asked why the pendant led him to question my beliefs, or lack of them.

“Because you never wear a Star of David,” he answered. “And you’re not into mysticism or bubbemeises.”

He was right. Logic pretty much defines me, and I never did wear a star.

Growing up in Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), I was as proud a Jew as any. But in the early 1940s, anti-Semitism deterred most of us from wearing our Judaism around our necks. When some of my friends started wearing the Star of David shortly after the birth of Israel, I did not. Less a Jewish symbol than a piece of jewelry in my mind, the Star seemed too frivolous for my socialist soul.

Those socialist qualms were gone by the 1980s when my Jewish Federation colleagues took to wearing chai necklaces. A heavy silver chai on a Mariner Chain was my first piece of Jewish jewelry and I wore it constantly until Anatoly Sharansky was freed. The amulet symbolizing solidarity with the refuseniks delighted me.

My hamsa collection started on a trip to Israel in the early 1990s when my travel companion’s Israeli daughter-in-law visited our Tel Aviv hotel one night to give her a hamsa pendant. “It’s an open right palm pointing down,” Orna explained. “We all wear them against the evil eye.”

Taking notice from then on, I saw hamsas around the necks of many young people walking the Tel Aviv streets and knew that I wanted one. When I got to Jerusalem, I made the rounds of the Cardo jewelry stores until I found one that I liked, bought it and put it right on. It’s a pretty little ornament that makes me feel Israeli, so I’ve brought one back from the homeland every visit since.

Because I like to buy Israeli, to support the Jewish state, I’m pleased that Israelis sell other good luck symbols on chains. Should I tire of the hamsa, I can go back to the chai, or wear a mezzuzah, or a menorah, or even a Jewish star.

There are many Jewish amulets (just check the Internet) and perhaps I’ll collect a few of them. Most are attractive, and you can’t have enough good luck.

Harriet Kessler, the former editor of The Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey, edits Attitudes Magazine, and is writing a book about her relationship with her recently deceased younger sister. You can read her previous submission to The Jewish Writing Project here: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/an-act-of-atonement/

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Israeli Phone Etiquette

by David Bogner (Efrat, Israel)

The title of today’s post makes a bold assumption; it assumes that there exists some sort of established etiquette for speaking on the phone here. If there is, in fact such established etiquette, I have yet to encounter it.

Take, for instance, the following typical exchange:

[Phone rings]
Me: “Hello?”
Caller: “Hello?”
[long pause]
Me: “HELLO?”
Caller: “Hello?”
[another long pause]
Me: “Can I help you? You called me. Surely you had some idea of what you wanted to say when you dialed my number!!!”
Caller: [as though 30 seconds hasn’t elapsed since I answered the phone] “Yes, I’m calling to speak with David, this is…”

Just so we’re clear, this is not something that happened once or twice. This is what happens every single time I answer the phone! I’ve listened to other people’s phone conversations and with the exception of my sarcastic remark about who called whom, this is exactly how the entire country begins a phone conversation!!!

The first few times I was on the receiving end of one of these calls, I thought perhaps the person had forgotten who they were calling. I mean, it’s happened to me on occasion that my mind wandered while the phone was ringing and when the person answered I had no idea who they were or why I was trying to reach them. But that’s not the case here… everyone begins their phone conversations like two painfully shy teenagers meeting at a school dance!

The crazy part is that Israelis are wonderful conversationalists. I can’t ever recall seeing or hearing of an Israeli who lacked for something to say. The Hebrew language’s relative paucity of words is more than balanced by the generous use of inflection, accent, tonal range and volume.

Israelis can go gesture-for-gesture with any of the great ‘talking cultures’ of the Mediterranean (Greek, Italian, French, etc). By this I mean that Israelis are extremely animated talkers, sometimes to the point of becoming oblivious to the scene (or accident) they are causing during an emotional tête-à-tête.

So what happens at the start of a phone call that makes them momentarily mute?

The end of the phone call has the opposite problem. Israelis seem to have never adopted the standard formulas for ending a phone conversation cleanly. People here don’t say:

Caller one: “Thanks for the recipe, I’ll look forward to seeing you this weekend.”
Caller two: “My pleasure, Bye.
[click]

No, instead conversations are allowed to loiter and circle the airport until the ‘plane’ is completely out of fuel.

For illustration purposes:

[at the tail end of a long phone conversation]
Me: “Well, I’m really glad you called.”
Other person: “Good…”
Me: “Great, so I guess…”
OP: “Ok, so…”
Me: “Alright then…”
OP: “Wonderful…”
Me: [sitting in confused silence because the conversation is inexplicably still going on… it simply refuses to die a quiet death!]
OP: “So…”
Me: “Ireallyhavetogonownicetalkingtoyoubye” [click]

If I hadn’t finally given the caller the verbal equivalent of the bum’s rush, the conversation would likely have gone on for another two or three minutes! No exaggeration! It makes me tired just thinking about it!

Again, I have listened in on other people’s conversations (it’s really not hard to do in such a vocal culture) and virtually everyone has this stammering, meandering wind-down to their conversations in place of the familiar (to me) formulaic; ‘set up’… ‘acknowledgement of set up’… and ‘mutual disconnect’.

Now, granted I’ve been living here in Israel less than a year-and-a-half…. so there are still quite a few cultural nuances that bump up against my ‘old country habits’. I’m sure if I was in Japan and I had to listen to people answering the phone with a brisk, “Mushy Mushy!”, it would take me at least this long to become comfortable with the change.

But if there is anyone out there who can shed a little light on how the concept of a clean start and finish to a phone conversation turned out to be such a difficult thing for Israelis to master, I would be much obliged.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003, David has been working in Israel’s defense industry in International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog, Treppenwitzhttp://www.treppenwitz.com(where this piece first appeared) and is an amateur beekeeper.

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Stepping Stones

by David Bogner (Efrat, Israel)

While we were in the U.S. this past August, I spent quite a bit of time browsing bookshops. The English language book selection isn’t terrible in big Israeli cities like Tel Aviv or Jerusalem… but there is something about wandering into a really well stocked bookstore with no plan other than to skim titles that I have not been able to replicate here.

While I was paying for a few books in a store out on Cape Cod, I found an interesting box of magnetic words next to the cash register. Truth be told, I had been looking for these words since we arrived in the states, but had sort of given up by the time they found me.

For the uninitiated, I’m talking about Magnetic Poetry. The basic box comes with what seems like two gazillion words. There are additional sets one can buy that have specialty words, but at the time the one box seemed quite adequate.

When we got back home, I completely forgot about the box of magnetic words… and it languished under a pile of things that had somehow never been properly put away (shocking, I know).

As I was straightening up before this past Shabbat, I rediscovered the box of words, and (much to Zahava’s chagrin) I abandoned my chores to immediately place all two gazillion of them on our front door. Stop looking so smug… like you’ve never gotten sidetracked!!!

My initial inclination was to organize the words by parts-of-speech (nouns with nouns, prepositions with prepositions, etc.), but decided that part of the fun would be the randomness of the arrangement.

It wasn’t until all the words (including a few prefixes and suffixes) were on the door that a few interesting things became obvious:

First of all… it turns out that there were way less than two gazillion words… probably closer to 150-200.

Also, I noticed that this random collection of words was eerily similar in size and make-up to the limited collection of words in my Hebrew vocabulary (ok, maybe I have more than a 200 word vocabulary… but some days it feels that way!).

So, what’s the first thing I did once all the words were up on the door?

That’s right, I figured I’d take a couple of seconds and ‘throw out’ the first ceremonial sentence… maybe even leave a witty poem!

Heh, yeah right.

You see there were other lurking similarities to my Hebrew vocabulary… meaning that searching around for exactly the right word was an exercise in futility. Humorous sentences were considered and discarded because I was missing essential words. As a thought would take shape, I would have to change direction/intent based on the words I could find. Fifteen minutes later I actually had my first sentence, but it bore no relation to where I’d been heading when I had started out.

This too was very much like what happens when I try to express myself in Hebrew. The words are there (at least a modest collection of them) but nearly every cogent thought is hijacked by not having ready access to the right words.

Like most immigrants, my conversations are slow, plodding affairs with lots of hand gestures and facial expressions filling in for perfect grammar. They bring to mind the image of a careless person crossing a stream on stepping-stones who hasn’t picked out the route all the way to the other bank. Most of the time I am able to get to the other side (meaning that I almost always manage to finish my thoughts/sentences), but occasionally I still find myself stranded mid-stream.

Just so you don’t think I’m complaining…it’s really amazing how many more ‘stones’ there are in the stream today than there were a year ago! The progress is glacial, though.

Since putting up the magnetic words, several new sentences have sprung to life. A few are Zahava’s doing, and one or two belong to Ari and/or Gili. I haven’t asked, but judging by the Asian syntax and ersatz proverb nature of the sentences, I would say that others have encountered the same challenges that I found. Maybe I’ll have to order one of the additional sets of magnetic words and surreptitiously add them slowly to the mix. I wonder if anyone will notice?

Once we become more familiar with what words are available to us, I’m sure the ‘poetry’ will flow more freely. But in the mean time, it’s kind of neat to have stumbled upon such a tidy little parallel to my ongoing language issues.

David Bogner, formerly of Fairfield, CT, lives in Efrat with his wife Zahava (nee Cheryl Pomeranz), and their children Ariella, Gilad and Yonah. Since moving to Israel in 2003, David has been working in Israel’s defense industry in International Marketing and Business Development. In his free time David keeps a blog, Treppenwitz http://www.treppenwitz.com(where this piece originally appeared) and is an amateur beekeeper.

“Stepping Stones” is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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A Deep and Complicated Love for Israel

by Julie Roth (Princeton, NJ)

First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5770/2009

I speak this morning out of a deep and complicated love for the State of Israel.

I first fell in love with Israel when I was 16 years old, traveling on an arts program for seven weeks.  I remember the tangible feeling of ancient history coming alive beneath my feet and the power of being in a Jewish country where the secular cab drivers said Shabbat Shalom and young soldiers, a few years older than me, protected a country built by heroic pioneers so that there would never again be a Holocaust.   I can still feel the wind at night in the Negev desert and on the rooftops in the old city of Jerusalem where I imagined what it was like to wander in the desert and receive the Torah at Sinai and where I finally stood in the place where I had directed my prayers for so many years.

And then at age 29, I lived in Israel for a full year, studying in rabbinical school with my Israeli and South American classmates.  Although it was a required year of study, only one-third of the American students came.  I was afraid to go to Israel that year – it was the height of the second intifada and suicide bombings were a regular occurrence – but I felt to be the kind of rabbi I wanted to be, I had to go.  The Dean of the rabbinical school told us at our Orientation that this year we would develop a mature love for Israel, not the infatuation of a quick tour of the Dead Sea and Ben Yehuda Street, but the love of a fifty year marriage, the love of commitment in good and bad times, a love built on scars as well as joyful memories.  That year I marveled at street signs bearing the names of the rabbis I studied in the Talmud and I made a new friend who later became my husband. That year I avoided buses and movie theatres to minimize my chances of being killed in a terrorist attack.  I prepared for the US war with Iraq by learning how to use a gas mask in case Saddam Hussein unleashed nerve gas against Israel.  At the end of the year when I returned my unused gas mask, as instructed, at the lingerie counter of the local department store, I laughed to myself, thinking is this what it means to have a mature love for Israel?

And now, seven years later, I am challenged to grow in my love for Israel in new ways.  While there is much to talk about regarding the settlement and the threat of a nuclear Iran, my focus today is not political.  This morning instead I want to focus on what it means to live with conflicting viewpoints and the importance of dialogue about Israel both within the Jewish community and across the Jewish and Muslim communities.  This is not the first year I have turned to the Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah and remarked to myself that the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, between Ishmael and Isaac still haunts us today; that the words jump off the page because of their resonance with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  But each year, as my own relationship with Israel changes and matures, I see the story with slightly different eyes.

This year, my reading of the story of Ishmael and Isaac is informed by something Imam Sohaib Sultan, the new Muslim Life Coordinator here at Princeton said to me last January in the middle of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.   We were speaking about the great effort that was being made by Muslim and Jewish students to plan a joint public event despite our radically different views of the war.  In the end, there was not one word the Muslim and Jewish students could agree to say publicly so we decided to stand together in silence, for fifteen minutes, outside Firestone library to honor the relationship we had built through dialogue and to express our shared hope that there would soon be an end to the loss of life on both sides of the conflict.   I was explaining to him how hard it was for me personally and for many members of the Jewish community to speak publicly about the suffering of the Palestinians while still feeling loyal to Israel and her right to defend her citizens.   Sohaib responded by saying that the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities could only be sustained, could only grow to the degree that we were willing and able to hear each other’s conflicting narratives.  That is why I am so struck by the fact that the central narrative that we read on Rosh Hashanah, the story of the binding of Isaac–  the troubling and quintessential test of Abraham’s faith– is told from a completely different perspective in the Muslim tradition.

In the Torah, Abraham does not tell Isaac in advance what he plans to do.  There are no details about whether Issac fully cooperated or resisted, but we call this story the binding of Isaac because Abraham binds Isaac to the altar before raising the knife to sacrifice him.  In contrast, in the, Qu’ran, Abraham’s son knowingly and voluntarily submits to being sacrificed; there is no need to bind him to the altar, rather he prostrates with his forehead to the ground.  Significantly, it is unclear in the Qu’ran which son is being sacrificed.  The majority of Muslim commentaries claim it is Ishmael, not Isaac, who submits to this ultimate test of faith.  But there are a minority of commentaries, some prominent, that claim it was Isaac.  Though it is tempting to simplify matters, to present a stark contrast between Isaac and Ishmael, between Judaism and Islam, I think it’s important to highlight here that even within the Muslim tradition there are multiple and conflicting voices.

As Jews, as much as we struggle with this story, we hold it sacred; we believe it is Isaac who is the direct link between God and Abraham and us; the link to the promise of being a great nation in the Land of Israel.  So what are we supposed to do with the information that Muslims tell this same story from a different perspective?  How can we hear and understand that Ishmael was almost sacrificed, without losing all the claims staked on our own version of the story?  As liberal, post-modern Jews who see the Torah as a sacred inheritance, but not as the literal word of God, it may be possible for us to acknowledge the truth of our own story and the truth of the Muslim story. But the challenge is to not let the existence of multiple sacred stories erode our own sense of truth while at the same time not denying or at least not ignoring the truth for the “other.”  I am not claiming that this is easy to do, with regard to religious beliefs or in any situation where we have a conflict enmeshed in competing narratives, but I am saying that I believe to move forward, to heal, to hope for peace, we must try to stand in that space of conflicting narratives, to learn from each other by talking and by listening.

Sometimes, our challenge comes not from a conflict between narratives, but from the conflict revealed within our own story.  In the chapter preceding the binding of Isaac, we read the story of Abraham kicking Hagar and Ishmael out of the household, sending them into the desert with only bread and a skin of water.  Whether or not Ishmael is at fault, the text makes clear in the very next verse that it is not possible for both sons to stay and inherit within the same land.  Sarah says to Abraham, garish ha-amah hazot v’et b’nah ki lo yirash ben ha-amah hazot im b’ni, im Yitzchak, “Cast out the slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, with Issac.”  After so many years of living side by side in the same home, Sarah does not even refer to Hagar and Ishmael by name, but rather as the “slave woman.”  What does it mean when we are unable or unwilling to refer to the “other” by name?  What is the Torah suggesting here by showing us that Hagar the Egyptian is the one enslaved and we are the ones who hold the power?

Sarah’s request greatly distresses Abraham, but God affirms that Sarah is right, that Isaac is meant to be the primary heir and Ishmael must go.  God also assures Abraham that God will make Ishmael a great nation as well.  The Torah underscores that there are hard realities that cannot be avoided if the Jewish people are going to inherit the Land of Israel. I still wonder why Abraham had to send Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert with only bread and a skin of water, placing them in a desperate, life-threatening situation.  Is it to highlight that God hears Ishmael’s voice too?   We could debate whether Abraham should have sent Hagar and Ishmael away more compassionately and in a sense that is what the Torah is asking us to do by including Abraham’s actions and their consequences.  Our tradition is telling us pieces of both sides of the story and asking us to struggle with the full complexity of what happened.

After many years of separation, Isaac and Ishmael meet again, briefly, to bury their father in the cave of Machpelah (Genesis 25:9).  The cave of Machpelah is located in Hebron, near the village of Beit Omar, where Osama Abu Ayash, one of the Palestinian participants in The Parents Circle – Family Forum lives with his wife Antisar.  The Parents Circle – Family Forum began in 1995; “it is a world precedent where bereaved families, victims from both sides, embark on a joint reconciliation mission while the conflict is still active.”  These several hundred families include Osama, who was tortured by the Israeli Defense Force and his wife Antisar, who lost two brothers in the conflict; they initially protested their brother even allowing a Jew in his home and later, after hearing the stories of several bereaved Israeli families, came to understand, in their words, “that the pain was the same pain, the suffering the same suffering, and the tears the same tears.”  The hundreds of families also include Robi Damelin, an Israeli mother who lost her son David while he was serving on reserve duty in the Occupied Territories.  Hesitant to join the group at first, Robi eventually wrote a letter to the mother of the Palestinian sniper who killed her son, a letter that was hand delivered by two of the Palestinians from her dialogue group; in the letter Robi wrote, “I am the mother of David who was killed by your son.  I give this letter to people I love and trust to deliver, they will tell you of the work we are doing, and perhaps create in your hearts some hope for the future.  I hope that maybe in the future we can meet.”  I bring the example of The Parents Circle – Family Forum because of the powerful example they set for us by what they do.  In the words of the groups’ Israeli co-founder, Roni Hirshenson who lost two sons in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “If we who have paid the highest price possible can talk to each other, than anyone can.”

In the Talmud, the idea that the difficult case proves the easier case is called a “kal v’chomer.”  Put in other words, according to Talmudic reasoning if bereaved Palestinian families can talk to bereaved Israeli families, then Jewish and Muslim students at Princeton can speak to one another.  And if the Muslim–Jewish dialogue program at Princeton can aim to increase our understanding of each other and create an environment where competing narratives can coexist, than all the more so within the Jewish community we should be able to speak openly about our different views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  More than any specific moral lesson or matter of Jewish practice, the Talmud teaches on every single page, by recording majority and minority opinions in conversation with each other, that the Jewish tradition values a multiplicity of voices.

I believe that the time for the American Jewish community to speak about Israel with only one voice and the time to support Israel by never talking about the suffering of the Palestinians has passed.  Our sacred texts ask us to remember that even our enemies are also human beings.  There is a midrash that speaks about the angels celebrating the destruction of the Egyptians after the ten plagues and the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea.  God stops this celebration saying, that the Egyptians are also My people.  For this same reason, we take a drop out of our wine cups as we recite each of the ten plagues at our Passover seders.  This tradition teaches us that if God can show compassion towards the suffering of the Egyptians without being disloyal to the Israelites, so too we can have compassion for the suffering of the Palestinians without being disloyal to the State of Israel.

There is a sparkling glimmer of hope immediately before our Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, a quick story of a peace treaty between Abraham and Avimelech, King of the Philistines.  Their direct communication and reconciliation models for us the type of direct conversations for the sake of forgiveness that our tradition demands of us at this time of year.  After Abraham reproaches Avimelech for the well of water which the servants of Avimelech had seized, Avimelech responds, lo yadati…lo hegadta li, v’ lo shamati, “I did not know, you did not tell me, and I did not hear of it until today.”  Avimelech’s words underscore our dual responsibility to both tell each other the complaints in our hearts and to listen to what we are being told.  One of the most powerful teachings of the Jewish tradition is that we must seek forgiveness from family, colleagues, and friends, and even adversaries directly; this often requires us to listen to another side of the story that may be different from our own.  As hard as it can be to know, to tell someone, to listen, I hope we will all be inspired by the courage of the bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families in the Parents Forum – Family Forum, by the committed students in the Muslim-Jewish dialogue program at Princeton, and by the conflicting opinions lovingly recorded on every page of our sacred Talmud.  I hope we will be inspired to engage in even the difficult conversations – to speak and to listen with the hope that by honoring each other’s stories we strengthen our relationships with “the other” and with each other; we bring healing to ourselves and to the broader world.    May this be a sweet New Year for all of us.  Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Julie Roth is the Executive Director of the Princeton Center for Jewish Life/Hillel. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she has lived in New York City, Boston, and Washington where she worked for Hillel on the local and international levels. She and her husband Justus love living in Princeton with their twin boys, Ilan and Rafael.

Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005, Rabbi Roth is a recipient of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and holds a BA in Comparative Religion from Brown University. Her passion for pluralism, Jewish life, and multi-culturalism make campus work an ideal match. When she’s not building a framework for a vibrant Jewish campus life, Julie enjoys ballroom dancing, swimming, movies, and cooking vegetarian food.

This essay was delivered as a sermon at the Princeton Hillel in September, 2009, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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