Tag Archives: Israel

All I Can Do

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

all i can do is be sad today,
and hear about the rockets flying from
one fence to the other
regardless of what mother and her baby
are strolling on the other side,
which man is rolling a cigarette
in the front seat of his truck,
wondering what he’ll bring home his
wife for the weekend

all i can do is not choose a side today, 
for sides have already been chosen,
and secured, and posted on doorposts
and upon gates, clung to for life,
the indentation of angry hands meant
to hold instruments, to hold one another,
grasping pocketknives grasping guns
grasping flag poles waving colors in the wind,
blues and whites and greens and blacks and reds
that claim sovereignty claim territory claim God
claim blood

all i can do is keep walking today,
walking to work walking to class
walking to busses
trying to memorize the shape of shelters
the shape of my heart how long it’ll
take me to run when i should duck for cover
when it’ll be too late

all human loss is our loss,
all mess on our fingers is ours,
the brokenness of other bodies is
our bodies’ brokenness,
brothers and sisters refusing to let go
tearing out each other’s spines
pouring all this frustrating summer heat into the gutter,
to dirty the world instead of making it better,
to hurt instead of heal

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she wrote this poem while completing the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently attending the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program at The University of San Francisco. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

If you’d like to read her work in prose, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/single-post/2018/11/27/To-Be-Or-Not-to-Be-Progressive-Judaism-in-Israel

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Filed under Israel Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

An Afternoon Cup of Tea

by Brad Jacobson (Columbia, MO)

Down more than one hundred steps

by an old graveyard and a green mountain

resembling camel humps.

A white towel hangs on a hook.

Water drips into a small pool of water

sunken in a cave. A tsaddik is buried here.

Legend says those that immerse

become pure.

Bobbing in chilly water:

Ad-dah-mah, mah-yeem, shah-mah-yeem.

Earth, water, sky.

I dress without drying off.

In my journal, I write:

My father and I are here together.

Afterwards we walk on the ancient streets of Tzfat

talking and laughing.

My mother joins us for tea.

Brad Jacobson is a volunteer every summer in Israel in the SAREL program. He teaches TESOL at the Asian Affair Center at the University of Missouri, where he has an MEd in Literacy. In the summers he enjoys exploring places with his camera like the Old City of Jerusalem, Tzfat, and the Red Sea where he scuba dives. He has been published in Tikkun, Voices Israel, Poetica, Cyclamens and Swords, and the University of Missouri International News.

“An Afternoon Cup of Tea” is from Brad’s new book, “Lionfish: The Poetic Collection Of A Traveler’s Experiences In Israel,” and reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and publisher.

You can read more of Brad’s poems in his new book. Visit the link to see more: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1946124648/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ref_=pe_3052080_397514860&linkCode=sl1&tag=beeps-20&linkId=b8e4722d77fdd5f0148ae60390d40ec2&language=en_US&fbclid=IwAR3ZBUQsla0CdU7voiaWm5FRPXzEEIglc0tuceGIUFwSsys5u14kBYEscLU

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

Holy Ground

by Kayla Schneider-Smith (Rishon LeZion, Israel)

Bubby holds up a fist and makes a
zero with her fingers

This is how “Jewish”
Reform Jews are to me,

she shuffles me through crowded markets where
boiling men wear summer coats and study
their feet as we pass them

step to the side, step to the side,
Bubby goads, but all I hear is

make yourself smaller,
make yourself zero

Bubby buys me a white shirt
and a white skirt for Yom Kippur
the way she thumbs through the racks and lights up when
she finds something right
makes me feel like she loves me

so that each time the hot familiar anger rises
I remember how she bought me a Yom Kippur outfit and
walked me through the city with her rolling shopping bag and
poured me iced coffee slushies and
paid for taxi rides home and told me

I’m waiting for you to wake up

Wake up to what, Bubby?
to your God who
invalidates my God?
to my God who challenges yours?

Kayla Schneider-Smith is a poet, musician, and social activist from Monmouth County, New Jersey. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she recently completed the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in Rishon LeZion, Israel, where she taught English, piano and guitar to children, adults and senior citizens in a small neighborhood called Ramat Eliyahu. Kayla is currently pursuing her Masters of Fine Arts in Writing at The University of San Francisco and working as the Mindful Arts Program Coordinator at the San Francisco Education Fund. She aspires to be an English professor, Rabbi, or Interfaith Minister one day.

If you’d like to read some of her work in prose, visit: https://www.yahelisrael.com/single-post/2018/11/27/To-Be-Or-Not-to-Be-Progressive-Judaism-in-Israel

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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Israel Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry


by Kae Bucher (Fresno, CA)

(a tehillim for Israel)

Along highway 180
(amidst swerving vehicles, angry-fisted drivers and crushed steel
from the accident on the side of the road), I pray

Please let whoever was in that car be okay
and help me get home
without getting hurt or hurting anyone.

Hot air from an open window pummels my eyes
and I squint, stretching my left foot
away from the sweaty plastic floor mat

A sandal slips under the brake pedal and I suck in sharp alarm,
adrenaline and ice. Out of the corner of my eye,
heat waves ripple over palm trees.

On the other side of the yellow line, paint flashes and grills rip
through my mirage of safety. A foot closer, and they become Hamas rockets
that won’t stop firing

36 projectiles at homes, cars
glass shards, shrapnel
28 injuries

two pregnant women hospitalized early

May the little one emerge at sha’ah tovah,
a goodly hour, an hour of ripeness and readiness for entering this world
in health and joy.

Out the window, the traffic dwindles
I recover my footing,
pass a palm tree and a carseat in a mini van
before melting back behind my steering wheel.

Under a Kerem Shalom sun,
another Red Alert siren sounds.

Families jump out of cars—
mothers and babies run for shelter,
grandfathers hide in stairwells,
and uncles throw themselves on the mercy of the asphalt,
covering their heads.

When the wailing stops,
those who survive
come out of hiding
resume their lives

I turn on the air conditioner,
look for the exit to take me home.

Since graduating from Fresno Pacific University, Kae Bucher has taught Creative Writing and Special Education. Her poetry appears in The Rappahannock Review and Awakened Voices Magazine and is also slated for publication in The Seventh Wave. Her first short story, “The Lost Names of Kaesong,” will appear in the upcoming edition of California’s Emerging Writers. You can read more of her poetry at www.bucketsonabarefootbeach.com.

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Ibex, Sheep, and SWAT Gear

by Saraya Ziv (Jerusalem, Israel)

The son of my lawyer, Dina, is getting married tonight and she has just about obligated me by contract to show my face for the ceremony. The wedding is across the street from Jerusalem’s large central market where a pigua, a terrorist attack, hit this morning. In my evening bag I carry pepper spray which I do not know how to use and which looks as menacing as a canister of breath freshener. I have two sharp pencils. I have the dull pin of an old brooch. I have no chance if a pigua hits tonight.

One route to this wedding is through the town of Beitar. The bus winds past a stretch of trees which reminds me of a parkway on Long Island. When we travel through concrete tunnels erected to postpone bullets blowing off my skull, I remember I’m not headed towards my brother’s Oyster Bay colonial. At a checkpoint, a civilian has another in a bear hug; they’re both giggling. Our driver opens his window and says something that sobers them. On a thin meridian, shoulder to shoulder, soldiers stand guard.

We pass between razor wire fences into Beitar. A life size diorama of ibex, sheep, and deer graze at a giant welcome sign. One large billboard encourages – enjoy Shabbat, from the minute it comes to the minute it leaves. Another warns – you’re bad talking others?  I don’t want to hear it! The only one to jump when two figures in SWAT gear and masks board our bus at the front door and exit at the back is me.

I reverse the trip in the dark. My bus is stuck behind a truck that says FedEx International. I imagine the truck plowing the Atlantic, crossing Europe, and landing in front of us, all on a single tank of gas. The driver is tuned in to a radio station he selected in New Jersey. His radio reports that the Garden State Parkway is backed up for miles, the new Miss America can drive a tractor, and nothing about pigua in the soft Judaean Hills.

On the hill to my village we halt at a roadblock. Two soldiers, one a woman with a French braid and a sub-machine gun, examine the trunk of a car. A loud crack terrifies me. It’s the limb of a tree, victim of a recent conflagration.

Saraya Ziv attended SUNY Buffalo, worked as a Business Analyst on Wall Street, and left the United States one April morning in 2015 on a one way ticket to Tel Aviv. She was born and lived in New York City all her life, but now lives a short drive to Jerusalem. You can find more of her work at her website, Mask for Winter (http://www.maskforwinter.com/) where this piece first appeared.

Note: This story appeared under a different title, “Beitar,” on the Mask for Winter in 2017, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. 





Filed under American Jewry, Israel Jewry, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

Jerusalem, 1976

by Michelle Edwards (Iowa City, IA) 

I apologized a lot the summer after I graduated from college. Easily the worst waitress in the seafood restaurant where I was working, perhaps even in their entire chain, I apologized for the wrong orders I delivered, the forgotten bowls of butter, and the length of time it took to bring, what seemed to me, an endless and unnecessary quantity of extra plates and silverware. The tips I earned waitressing, many times, generous tips given out of pity, allowed me to make the bundle of money I needed.

I had big plans. I was moving to Israel and starting a year of studies at Bazalel, the art academy in Jerusalem. It was 1976 and I was twenty-one years old. Near the end of my first year in Jerusalem, through contacts made at Bazalel, I landed a plum job printing etchings and lithographs for other artists in a studio affiliated with the Jerusalem Museum.

Living in Jerusalem I was always aware of my accent, my grammatical mistakes, and the countless ways I was identifiably American. Being foreign kept me on my guard. There’s a comfort in the familiar, what we know so well, the streets of our hometown or sounds of our mother tongue. I had left all that behind, without regrets. But it would have been an impossible treat, just once, to unexpectedly bump into a long lost pal from camp, or school, and, in English, joke around and share memories. That comfort was what I did miss. Regretted not having.

My father had died a few years before, and in my hometown of Troy, New York, my mother was busy raising my then teenage brother. My older sister was newly married and lived a few towns over. They were not great candidates for visiting me.

Back then, in the days before cell phones, a long-distance call was something you thought about carefully, planned for, did infrequently, and then, only in the late evening hours, when the rates went down substantially. Overseas mail was slow, and a trip to Israel, an expensive journey. Any traveler going there—neighbors, family friends, friends of neighbors, a grammar school classmate’s parents once, acquaintances even—would call me with a message from home, or maybe drop by my modest digs for coffee and cake. Sometimes with a letter or a small present from my mother. Being so far way, even our remote connections drew us together.

I write about all of this here to give an idea of how much it meant to me when my college friend, Laura, wrote asking if she might visit me in Jerusalem. Back in Albany, in our student days, Laura was my knitting buddy. Once, she had taught me a speedy afghan pattern, using three strands of knitting worsted on super jumbo needles. I still use a variation of this pattern for baby blankets. Knitting had been a love of mine since childhood. Now, with all that it took to live and work in Jerusalem, I was often too busy to knit.

Laura was living abroad, too, on the Greek island of Larnaca. Almost in my neck of the woods. More letters were exchanged and plans were made. I managed to get a few days off from work so we could travel together. Laura was interested in archeology, that was the reason she was in Greece, and we intended to go to Meggido and other sites. My job, printing etchings, dealing with other artist’s demands, was hard physical, and sometimes, emotional work. Having Laura come would give me a chance to vacation, to be carefree for a while. We might even knit, companionably again, outside at a café while sipping our cappuccinos and nibbling on a pastry.

Laura was due to arrive later in the day. I left work early; stopping at my apartment first to shower away the ink and solvent, the sweat and grime that come with being a printer. Clean and refreshed, I headed to Jerusalem’s central bus station.

Israeli buses were unreliable at best in those days. So I had allotted extra time for the eventualities that were sure to occur. Meeting a guest at the airport, being the first to welcome them to the country, was an important part of receiving visitors in Israel. I had wanted to do this right, to be there to say, “Shalom,” to my friend Laura.

The first bad sign was the lengthy line. The second one was really the third, fourth, and fifth ones as well; all buses to the airport came to the gate packed. Loaded. Full. They dribbled off a few passengers and boarded only a couple from the very front of the line. I was afraid to guess how long I would have to wait for my turn. I had miscalculated. The big cushion of time I had allowed for this kind of occurrence no longer seemed generous enough.

Anxiety was creeping into what was supposed to be a special afternoon. A bunch of folks around me began discussing sharing a sherut, a taxi, to the airport. I usually associated taxis with tourists, not working gals like me, but this was an emergency. I was desperate. With a bit of luck, I might make still be able to greet Laura as she left customs and joined the flow into the main greeting area. Squeezed in the middle of the back seat, the ride was suffocating and slow. Did I mention the heat?

When we got to the airport, I discovered Laura’s plane had landed early. Before its scheduled time. Who would have guessed that? I could hardly believe it was even possible.

I looked around for Laura. The airport wasn’t a big place. But I couldn’t find her anywhere. I headed to the information desk and had her paged. Three times. With instructions to meet me there. I waited and waited.

Nothing had gone right that day. This was a part of living in Israel I was still getting used to; much of what I took for granted when I lived in America, like buses and telephones, couldn’t be counted on there. Because of this, getting to places—work, the market, or the movies—and making plans of any kind, was complicated. The stress of the missed buses, the uncomfortable ride, and the afternoon heat had me frazzled, unhinged. And now no Laura.

Israel was and is a country that daily received and reunited the dispersed and separated, family and friends. The airport greeting area was an emotional arena. And that’s without including the pilgrims to the Holy Land. This was the day I was going to be a part of that show. The day I wore the badge of truly living there.

So where was Laura? Was she still in customs? It could be a lengthy process, and had occasionally, been so in my experience. Sometimes security arbitrarily selected a passenger for an extra thorough exam.  I checked by there again. Everyone on her flight had cleared through and appeared to be gone. Her name was on the passenger list, but that didn’t convince me she had actually been on the plane. Could be another system that didn’t work. After an hour or more, of paging and searching, I had to finally acknowledge that Laura wasn’t in the airport.

I jotted my phone number down on a piece of paper and left it with the information desk clerk, even though I knew she would never ever call me. The paper would be lost, and even if she did try, the phone in my apartment might not work that day. Defeated and disappointed, I did not even consider taking a bus home. Or a sherut. This time, I took a private taxi. It was an uncharacteristically, wildly extravagant gesture, and if I could have, I would have paid the driver extra to carry me up the stairs to my apartment.

On the ride back to Jerusalem, I had decided I’d return to work the next day. We were in the middle of printing an edition; it was the responsible, mature thing to do.  I’d tell everyone at the shop what had happened and gather up all the sympathy I could from my coworkers. There probably wouldn’t be much sympathy to gather, though. This was a country where the guys my age were just finishing their army service. Overreacting to life’s little disappointments was very American, a euphemism for being spoiled. Israelis were dealing with the big issues, like war and survival, not missed buses.

So what had happened to Laura, I wondered.  Did she get sick at the last minute? Break a leg? Was she called back to the States for an emergency? I hoped it was something more romantic, like she met the love of her life, hours or minutes before she was to come, and couldn’t bear to be parted from him. Exploring all these possibilities didn’t prepare me for what happened when I opened my apartment door.

There, sitting at my kitchen table, was Laura, smiling and sipping tea with my roommates, who had already taught her a few Hebrew words.

“Shalom,” she said.

Surprised, and relieved to find her at last, we quickly exchanged our stories of missing encounters. While I was stuffed in a sherut, Laura had zipped through customs; the usually busy airport had been momentarily empty.  Not finding me anywhere at the terminal or lobby, she was not distressed. No apology needed. She assumed something came up and I was unable able to make our meeting. An independent and seasoned traveler, she grabbed her luggage, hailed a taxi, and gave the driver my address.

I was amazed. It had never occurred to me that all the systems might function and deliver. The plane, customs, taxis.  If I had thought to save up a pocketful of asimonim, the Israeli phone tokens that could only be purchased from the post office, and were very often sold out, and if there had been a pay phone that actually worked, I could have called my apartment and asked my roommates if they had heard from Laura. But I hadn’t thought I would need to call.  And it didn’t matter now.

My guest had arrived. I needed to be a host. It was time for dinner. Maybe we went into town with my roommates and grabbed a falafel, or walked up to the makolet, the little grocery store in my neighborhood, and picked up some yogurts and fruit. I’m pretty sure we stayed away from the buses. The delight of having Laura with me, had helped shake loose the fury and strain of the day. Still I felt limp, washed out, and beat. Not long after eating, we settled into my room. Resting on my bed, I watched Laura unpack her bag.

“I knew that I couldn’t come and visit you without something to work on,” she said.

Laura had brought yarn, a crochet hook, and a shawl she learned to make from the women in the house where she lived. Sold to tourists, the shawls were lacey, with a delicate flower pattern that bloomed across the widest part.

I was a knitter with a very basic knowledge of crochet, mostly self-taught. The shawl was something new for me to try. Something beautiful to make. Every part of me was waking up, alert, anxious to turn my mind, my hands, and the wilted parts of my being, over to learning how to master this pattern.

Hours went by. The two of us sat and stitched, talked and laughed, probably preventing my roommates from having a good night’s rest. Laura guided me through the tricky sea of new stitches. Much, much later, right before dawn, it burst forth. The flower part of the shawl opened up. To this day, I can remember the amazed and exhausted buzz I felt. This is what I had been stitching for. It had all come together. In my hands was a gift of comfort and joy.

They say there are two Jerusalems. The spiritual one of mystics and true believers, where the holiest walk. And the other, the everyday one, where dinner is cooked, jobs are worked, and perhaps, where shawls are made.

That morning, long ago and far away, I learned a pattern was something I could believe in. My fumbles and mistakes could be frogged, taken out, and fixed. If necessary, I could double back and start again, because making the shawl was about trust. Putting my faith in wool and hook and trusting that after a hundred, or a thousand, or a million stitches, a flower will blossom.

Michelle Edwards is the author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays and cards for knitters. Her titles include: CHICKEN MAN (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and A KNITTER’S HOME COMPANION (an illustrated collection of stories, patterns and recipes). Michelle grew up in Troy, New York and now lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where she shares, with her husband, a house full of books, yarn, and the artifacts of their three daughter’s childhoods.  


Filed under American Jewry

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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