Daily April poem: a series of lunes

13408287575_f81cbd47bb_nWAKE-UP CALL

Four-thirteen AM:
the call to prayer glides
into my ear.

God is greatest!
Another voice joins the song
point and counterpoint.

I bear witness
that there is no other
God but God!

Handful of stones
thrown into a still pond
make intersecting ripples.

In my bed
I think: hear, O Israel --
God is One.

When I sing
morning prayers I will remember
this sharp yearning.

One by one
the loudspeakers cease crying out.
Listen: church bells.

The day four prompt at NaPoWriMo is to write a lune, a three-line poem intended to do in English what a haiku does in Japanese. They suggested that we work with the form developed by Jack Collum, which features stanzas of three words, five words, three words.

Just last week I was in Jerusalem marveling at the early-morning sounds of the Old City (see Staying somewhere new). That's what sparked this poem. (The photo accompanying the poem is my own.)

You can read about the adhān here at Wikipedia.

"Hear, O Israel -- God is One" is a slight abbreviation of the shema.


Daily April poem for NaPoWriMo: based on a non-Greco-Roman myth


Vaster than any known creature who lives in the deep!
Prayers encircle your horns. Light shines from your eyes.

Most of all you are lonely: God reconsidered your power
and killed your companion, salting away her flesh

as a feast for the righteous at the end of time.
These are the stories we whisper where you can't hear.

Each day you eat a whale whole and drink the Jordan down.
Maybe it's your fault there isn't enough water anymore.

To the dispossessed, the defending army is a leviathan
destroying homes with a flick of its mighty tail.

To the other side, the riotous rabble are numerous
as the scales on leviathan's back, deadly as its toothy maw.

Can that story change, or are we locked like bullets
into the rifled helix which points to the fearsome day

when the triumphant will stitch a sukkah from your skin
when we will have slain the greatest mystery of the sea?

The April 2 NaPoWriMo prompt suggests the writing of a poem arising out of a non-Greco-Roman myth. I chose Leviathan - drawing on a number of different midrash about the great sea-creature, many of which are cited in its Wikipedia entry (to which I just linked.)

Of course, since I am still processing my recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, thinking about leviathan's might and power led me to thinking about how each side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict sees the other as the powerful aggressor, so that's in this poem too.


Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour

13492442823_43af1b707f_nOne of the things I knew I wanted to do, upon returning to Israel for the first time in many years, was to go with Eliyahu McLean to Hebron on his Hebron Dual Narrative Tour. I had heard about the trip from a rabbi friend, who wrote to me:

Eliyahu's trip to Hebron is amazing and wonderful and done in tandem with a Palestinian guide. I cannot recommend the experience highly enough... on Eliyahu's trip, one spends 1/2 the day speaking with Jewish settlers, and 1/2 the day speaking with Palestinians. One experiences what is happening on the ground there. It is painful, complex, and not rhetorical or polemical.  It is not either/or to go with Eliyahu, but both/and in every sense of the word.

Not either/or, but both/and: that sounds right up my alley. Eliyahu was the first person ordained by Reb Zalman as a Rodef Shalom, a seeker of peace. (Learn more about his work at Jerusalem PeaceMakers which he co-founded along with the late sheikh Abdul Aziz-Bukhari, may his memory be a blessing. And here's an interview with Eliyahu at JustVision. While I'm at it -- let me mention that Eliyahu and my friend Reuven collaborated on transcribing the story of Reb Zalman Among the Sufis of Hebron, which I have cherished for years.)

13538370743_c172463a27_nI had visited Hebron once, in 2008, but not on this kind of dual-narrative trip. I was eager to see what I would learn. So last Wednesday morning I woke up early at the Ecce Homo convent and made my way through the Old City, out the Damascus Gate, and all the way down Street of the Prophets to meet up with the group. We were a mixed group of internationals: from Iceland, Denmark, Germany, Canada, the United States, and more. As far as I could tell, I was the only Jew on the tour.

(Long post ahead -- more than 4000 words, and many images, too. I hope you'll read the whole thing, despite its length.)

One of the first things that Eliyahu said to us was, "Remember that this trip is about dual narratives. You may feel at times that they are dueling narratives!" The first half of the day was spent with Eliyahu as our guide in the Jewish area of Hebron, which is called H2. H2 consists of about 20% of Hebron, geographically speaking; about 30,000-40,000 Palestinians live there. He reminded us that Hebron is one of Judaism's four holy cities, was the first capital from which King David reigned, and is considered in Jewish tradition to be second only to Jerusalem. 

Eliyahu speaks to our group; two Palestinian women at the edge of Shuhada / King David street.

He pointed out that both sides in this conflict tend to paint themselves as the victims. For instance: the Palestinian narrative holds that the closure of Shuhada street (which Jews call King David street) is a form of apartheid. That street had been a primary market thoroughfare before it was closed by the IDF. Now it is a ghost town of shuttered shops (and Palestinians are forbidden from walking on most of it), which the Palestinian narrative sees as a land grab and an exercise of power and control. The Israeli narrative says that King David street was closed because of suicide bombings and other attacks on Jews, and points out that Palestinians have access to 97% of the city while Jews are confined to a mere 3%, so clearly it's the Jews, not the Palestinians, who are the victims. (That's one example of incompatible narratives; over the course of the day we encountered many others.)

Continue reading "Returning to Hebron - on a Dual Narrative Tour" »

The adventure of staying somewhere new

View from the roof of the Ecce Homo, twilight. Below: intersection with minaret, shopkeeper's wares.

13408211325_efa47a699a_nI've never stayed in the Old City before. The moment I walk out of the convent guesthouse where I am staying, I'm on the cobblestones of the Via Dolorosa. Merchants selling Christian religious icons beckon me into their storefronts. If I continue walking away from the Lion's Gate, I reach a T-junction. If I turn left there, and follow the road as it zigs and zags a bit, I wind up at the Kotel. If I turn right, and follow the road as it zigs and zags a bit, I wind up at the Damascus Gate.

I don't think these streets are officially part of the marketplace (shuk in Hebrew, souq in Arabic), but there are market stalls along them nonetheless. A few vendors are selling prayer beads / rosaries (both Christian and Muslim), or religious icons. Others sell leather sandals, spices, Arabic candy, loops of sesame-encrusted bread, plastic toys, abayas, and alarm clocks shaped like the Dome of the Rock.

I am an obvious outsider in my jeans, sandals, and t-shirt. Even when I don't have my camera out, even without a guidebook in hand, I am clearly a foreigner, which means that vendors call out to me as I pass. "Hello! Miss! Step inside. Come and see." I smile but keep on walking; I'm not in the market for their wares. I wish I could snap photographs of the market stalls, and of the locals as they weave effortlessly through the foot traffic, but I don't.

Breathing in, I inhale coffee with cardamom, a tendril of the incense burning at the spice vendor's shop, vehicle exhaust, the apple-like sweetness of nargila smoke. The scents link me instantly with my summer in Jerusalem and with the trip Ethan and I took to Amman. This is the fragrance of the Middle East. I wonder whether I first encountered it on my adolescent trip to Cairo with my parents and sister, all those years ago, but I can't call up those sense-memories. One way or another, there is nothing like this scent back home.

13408386863_c75b22552c_nAround me I hear the clamor of voices, mostly speaking Arabic, which I do not understand. Occasionally I hear a snatch of Hebrew, mostly from the visibly-Jewish passers-by, the men in black frock coats with peyos and hats, the women with their hair wrapped in scarves who push strollers and lead little ones by the hand. The streets are narrow; there is barely enough room for the occasional car which creeps through, horn blaring when the foot traffic gets in its way.

As I return to the guesthouse, the set hour arrives for Muslim evening prayer. The adhān rings out first from one minaret, then from another, and within moments I am ensconced in an aural web of voices coming from every direction. The melody is plaintive and melancholy to my untrained ear. (Not so much a melody as a nusach -- like the old melodic modes in which we sing weekday prayer.) The voices seem to ripple, like the surface of a pond into which stones have been thrown. When the call to prayer falls silent, I hear the sound of church bells.


Photos, once again,  from my ever-expanding trip photoset.

In Akko: Crusader-era ruins and the Jezzar Pasha mosque

13358289154_bf1dcfd468_nAnother new-to-me destination on my family's travels was Akko -- one of the oldest continuously-inhabited sites in the region. (Bet She'an has evidence of habitation for about 6000 years; Akko, about 4000 years.) From the city's Wikipedia page I learned that the first settlement on this site was in the early Bronze age, about 3000 BCE. I also learned that "The name 'Akka is recorded in Egyptian sources from about 2000 BCE, with three signs (the initial guttural, "k" and "a"; followed by the sign for 'foreign city.')" How cool is that?

At one time Akko was ruled by Rome; then became part of the Byzantine empire; then spent a while under Muslim rule; then the Crusaders took control. By the 1130s it had a population of around 25,000 and was the biggest city in the Crusader kingdom except for Jerusalem. Eventually the Ottomans ruled there; then it became part of British Mandate Palestine. In 1929 there was a pogrom during which Arab residents demolished the synagogue in the old city. Tensions between Arabs and Jews were high again between 1936 and 1939. In 1948, when the city became part of the modern state of Israel, about 3/4 of its Arab inhabitants were displaced. But today it remains a "mixed city," with both an Arab and a Jewish population.

What reading I was able to do before the trip suggested that the relationships between the Arab and Jewish populations here are still complicated: see Arab rock attack at home in Acre, 2013, or The Israeli TV guide to cheap Arab lives, 2014. (Note that those reports come from very different news sources, so they paint quite different pictures.) I'm heartened to read about places like the Sir Charles Clore Jewish-Arab Community Center -- though I don't know enough to know how to balance the existence of a place like that against the other stories to which I just linked.

13356256385_92f1ed8d39_nAnyway: given the link that my sister sent out before the trip (Underground Crusader city revealed beneath streets of Acre, Ha'aretz) I suspected Akko was on our agenda for primarily archaeological reasons, and I was right. Here's a glimpse of that Ha'aretz piece to whet your appetite, as it did mine:

Preparing to open a new subterranean section to the public, workers cleaned stones this week in an arched passageway underground. Etched in plaster on one wall was a coat of arms — graffiti left by a medieval traveler. Nearby was a main street of cobblestones and a row of shops that once sold clay figurines and ampules for holy water, popular souvenirs for pilgrims.

All were last used by residents in 1291, the year a Muslim army from Egypt defeated Acre's Christian garrison and leveled its remains. The existing city, built by the Ottoman Turks around 1750, effectively preserved this earlier town, which had been hidden for centuries under the rubble.

"It's like Pompeii of Roman times — it's a complete city," said Eliezer Stern, the Israeli archaeologist in charge of Acre. He called the town "one of the most exciting sites in the world of archaeology."

I know that archaeology is often political -- especially in the "Holy Land;" here's a great article about that, actually: Digging for the Truth -- but I couldn't help being excited at the prospect of seeing ruins like these, especially given that the whole Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

13356287753_a024faee29_nWe began with the Ottoman-era Citadel, and then entered the Hospitallers' Fortress, the vast vaulted halls built and used by the Hospitallers knights during the Crusader era, which had been buried for centuries beneath the Citadel and nearby prison. Our guide explained that the structures above them had caved in during an invasion (perhaps the Mamluk invasion? it's hard to keep track!) and it was apparently easier to just fill the spaces with sand and build on top than to clear them out. So for a time, prisoners in the local prison yard did their exercises on top of these ancient hidden halls.

I've never been much of a Crusader buff. Jews didn't fare well during the Crusades, and that's never been a period of history into which I've wanted to delve too deeply. But leaving aside for the moment the problematics of the Crusades as violent holy wars, this complex of early medieval halls and great rooms is dazzling.

Toward the end of our time in the Crusader complex we walked through a tiny underground tunnel which once served as the sewer conduit between this underground complex and the sea -- and then through the Templars' tunnel, which is believed to have been a secret Crusader escape route which allowed them to flee to their waiting boats on the sea. Running water flowed beneath our feet as we trod on a well-constructed wooden walkway, sometimes crouching beneath a surprisingly low vaulted ceiling, and made our way underground to the shore.

13357463725_8113d7aa81_nWe also visited the largest mosque in Israel outside of Jerusalem, the Jezzar Pasha Mosque , built in 1781. I hadn't known we were coming to a mosque today, so was wearing short sleeves. The friendly gentleman at the entrance to the compound passed out dark blue cloths which several of us used to cover in various ways in order to be appropriately-respectful. Once we were adequately draped, we stepped inside.

I'm not sure I would have been much of a fan of Jezzar Pasha himself, whose nickname was "The Butcher." (Sounds like he wasn't very nice to his Jewish chief advisor, Haim Farhi.) But the mosque which takes his name, constructed on his orders in a single year, is quite beautiful.

The Jezzar Pasha mosque inhabits a lush, peaceful courtyard where birds sing and a water fountain (with faucets for wudu) flows merrily. The inlay on the outside of the building is gorgeous, as is the green dome. Inside, names of God twine around the building in gold letters on blue, and beautiful inlay and painted ornament rest side-by-side with an LED clock which displays the time until the next prayers.

13357956374_2ae768fa41_nWe spent a while walking around its courtyard, admiring the artistry of the Byzantine and Persian ornamentation, and standing in small groups quietly inside the doors of the mosque (not on the prayer rugs, but on a little wooden area just inside the door which was clearly meant for visitors) just letting the space wash over us.

After visiting the mosque, we walked back to the Crusader ruins -- and heard the adhān about two minutes later, while standing in a small grassy square just outside one of the main entrances to the ruins. We stopped and listened to its haunting melodies. God is great! rolled out like auditory calligraphy, floating on the sea-scented air.


All photos in this post come from this trip's photoset, which I'm doing my best to add to each day (wifi permitting.)


Walking in (ancient) Caesaria

13332922384_0e2d06f3c5_nOn Shabbat morning I woke up in Jerusalem and, with nearly twenty members of my extended family, boarded a bus heading north. The first place we visited together was Caesaria (קֵיסָרְיָה / قيسارية‎).

Before our visit, the name mostly evoked the Hannah Szenes poem הליכה לקיסריה, "Walking to Caesaria." Here it is sung by Regina Spektor [YouTube link] -- gives me chills every time. (We often sing this in my synagogue at Yizkor / Memorial services.) The words mean, "My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart."

Wanting to know more than just that beautiful melody, I read the town's Wikipedia page, and here's a snippet of what it says:

The town was built by Herod the Great about 25–13 BCE as the port city Caesarea Maritima. It served as an administrative center of Judaea Province of the Roman Empire, and later the capital of the Byzantine Palaestina Prima province during the classic period. Following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, the city had an Arab majority until Crusader renovation, but was again abandoned after the Mamluk conquest. It was populated in 1884 by Bosniak immigrants, who settled in a small fishing village. In 1940, kibbutz Sdot Yam was established next to the village. In February 1948 the village was conquered by a Palmach unit commanded by Yitzhak Rabin and its people expelled. In 1952, a Jewish town of Caesarea was established near the ruins of the old city, which were made into the national park of Caesarea Maritima.

After the Roman material -- I'm always fascinated by Roman-era history, ever since spending all of those years studying Latin -- the British Mandate section is most interesting to me, especially the part about the village notable who approached local Jews in an effort to establish a non-belligerency agreement in 1947, and the Haganah presence which followed in 1948, resulting in the expulsion of the town's residents and subsequent demolishing of most of its houses. That said -- we didn't see any of modern Caesaria, so most of that research turned out to be background for a place we didn't visit!

13332642464_4d176dbb12_nWhere we actually went was Caesarea Maritima, the Israeli national park containing the extensive ruins of ancient Caesaria, which was established by Herod the Great around 25 B.C.E. (The town, not the national park, obviously.) Of course, this means that Caesaria isn't mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, because it's far too recent for that. We spent a neat morning exploring the ruins along with the guide my sister had hired. He was full of interesting facts about, e.g., where the marble to build the columns had come from, and how the theatre and hippodrome were used, and how the city got its name, and how the manmade harbor was built out of concrete laid underwater during the first century B.C.E. (and why it later eroded away).

Much of what we saw was original -- for instance, the mosaic floors in various places, which were gorgeous -- though the outdoor semicircular theatre is mostly reconstruction, and so is the replica of the stone which bore the inscription "Pontius Pilate dedicated a building here to Caesar in such-and-such a year" -- the original is in the Israel museum, too precious to leave out to the winds and the weather, as it's the only place outside of the Christian scriptures where Pilate is mentioned. Apparently it was found face-down in the theatre; people had been using it as a stepping-stone for years, and were stunned when it was flipped over and they realized its historical importance. I particularly liked the ruins of the palace, with the mosaic floor, and the remnants of what may once have been a swimming or bathing pool, right on the edge of the sea.

13331836623_472610895f_nAfterwards we drove along amazingly twisty mountain roads to the Arab village of Ein Hud (not to be confused with the Israeli artists' village Ein Hod, which is next door) for a meal at Habait Be'Ein Hud, which was one of the most extraordinary meals of my life. There is no menu; you just eat whatever the mother of the household has cooked that day. I love putting my trust in a chef's hands like that, and oh, wow, this kitchen did not disappoint. The place was packed, and we were the only English-speaking table in evidence.

We were seated at a giant long banquet table next to windows overlooking the hills and wildflowers and olive trees. The food just kept coming: hummus, babaghanoush, tabbouleh, olives and turmeric-pickled cauliflower, every Arabic salad and appetizer I could name (and several I couldn't, including one which I think was made mostly out of Swiss chard with lemon and cumin.) That alone would have been plenty of lunch. But it turned out to be just the prelude to plate after plate of spiced rice and chicken, turmeric-yellow rice surrounded by chunks of fork-tender meat, eggplant in a rich sauce, stuffed peppers...!

13331732625_868e9eeafe_nI wish I could have eaten twice as much as I did; it was incredible. I just kept saying "todah rabah! shukran!" to the people who brought the food, over and over again.

That meal culminated in a downstairs sitting area, where we were offered tea or coffee (I chose coffee -- in a tiny eggshell teacup, dark and thick and cardamom-scented, which I sweetened with sugar; the flavor immediately took me back to the last time I was in this part of the world!) and ate baklava and relaxed.

There was another surprise in store. I think a local capoeira club happens to practice there on Shabbat afternoons. At least, my sister insisted that she had not hired them as entertainment; they just showed up, turned on music, and fought / danced / did their beautiful graceful moves. We sipped our coffee and tea, and applauded, and one of my older nephews got up and one of the dancers taught him a few of their simpler patterns...and then we got back on the bus and continued on our way.


All photos can be found in my growing photoset from this trip.

A reading in Jerusalem!

70FacesSmall WaitingToUnfold-small

I'm thoroughly delighted to be able to announce that I'll be giving a talk and poetry reading in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem next week! Here's the event description:

Thursday, March 27, 8pm: Rachel Barenblat on motherhood, poetry, and spiritual life

Join poet and rabbi Rachel Barenblat for a talk about motherhood, poetry, blogging, postpartum depression, and spiritual life. Rachel will intersperse poems from Waiting to Unfold (Phoenicia, 2013) with narrative about new motherhood and postpartum depression, using these poems (written one each week during the first year of her son's life) as a springboard for a conversation about how parenthood shapes both poetry and spiritual life. Depending on the interest of those who are present, she may also talk about Torah poetry and/or about blogging; her blog Velveteen Rabbi was named one of the top 25 sites on the internet in 2008.

I'm really looking forward to sharing poems and conversation. If you are in or near Jerusalem, I hope you will join us! The event will take place at the home of Rachel Shalev, a member of Nava Tehila, the Jewish Renewal community of Jerusalem. Seating is limited, and the event is RSVP only; if you're planning to come, please contact Rachel Shalev and ensure your place.

Deep thanks to author and journalist (and friend) Ilene Prusher, who did the work to set this up for me. Her books will be available for sale at the event, as will a limited number of copies of mine.

On my way

Il_570xN.184531812Mark Twain wrote that "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness[.]" I don't know about fatal, but anyone who travels with open eyes and an open heart can't help but be moved. By the things we have in common across the earth's wide expanse, and by the many fascinating places where we differ in custom, practice, dress, way of being in the world.

Travel can shake one out of calcified habits. Days have a different rhythm when one is away from home. Everything seems new, or has the capacity to seem new. Home is about sedentary comfort, the small joys of the mundane and routine. But most of those routines are shattered when one is on the road, waking in an unfamiliar bed, breathing unfamiliar air.

I love my home (the house itself, and the hilltop where it stands, and the community of which it is a part), and I like the rhythms of my life as rabbi, mother, poet, daughter, spouse. And I also love leaving home: walking with renewed attentiveness to the world around me, meeting new people, seeing new things, connecting where I've been with where I'm going.

Traveling, like parenthood, requires yielding a certain amount of control. We make the best plans we can, and inevitably something comes along to shift those plans into a new configuration. Traveling is an exercise in mindfulness and an exercise in cultivating graceful acceptance of whatever gifts the world places in our path, even if they don't look like gifts at the time.

This morning I will drive the familiar winding country roads which take me to the airport an hour away. After a short flight, I'll spend most of the day in an unfamiliar airport. And then I'll get on another plane -- a much bigger one, this time -- and fly all night, arriving tomorrow jet-lagged and disoriented in Tel Aviv.

I've been thinking about this trip for a long time. It was on my mind when I wrote The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and (February, 2014.) I can't help thinking back to June of 2008 when I last made this journey -- though then I was leaving home for a whole season; this time I'll be abroad for a mere ten days. Then I was a student; now I am a rabbi, and a mom.

I think I know some of what these ten days will hold. (Time with family; a bar mitzvah; a day trip to Hebron; a poetry reading in Jerusalem next Thursday; meals and coffee with friends.) But I'm also going to do my best to be open to surprises, and to find the blessing in every moment, and to keep my mind and heart open to being further broadened, even when that broadening stretches me beyond my usual comfort zone.

I am grateful for the opportunity to make the journey. May all who travel reach their destinations safely, today and every day.



Two perspectives on Zionism

As I prepare for my own departure tomorrow, I've paused in my packing to read two essays written by respected rabbinic colleagues, both published this week in Al-Jazeera. In one essay, Rabbi Ari Hart writes about why he is a Zionist. In the other, Rabbi Brant Rosen writes about why he is not.

Rabbi Ari Hart writes:

5e4085425f7bc9f0a0ac43ed63f6a9adThe Psalmist says it best: Zionism and the return to Israel is like a dream. It is an ancient dream, thousands of years older than the Holocaust, European anti-semitism and colonialism. It is a three-part dream of returning to the home from which we were exiled, living out our destiny as a people, and bringing righteousness and justice into the world. It is a dream we carried with us from Algeria to Azerbaijan, New York to New Dehli for 2,000 years.

For millennia, the dream lay embedded in Jewish yearning, scripture and prayer, but with only the faintest hope of it being realised. The consistent attempts by Jews to live and flourish in the land of Israel, long before the existence of Zionism as a political ideology, were an expression of that dream. The more recent emergence of political Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel have marked the beginning of that dream coming true.

...The challenge of my Zionism is to recognise two things at the same time: how positive Zionism and the state of Israel have been for the Jewish people and the world, and that a beautiful dream does not always mean a perfect reality.

-- Rabbi Ari Hart, My Zionist dream, my Zionist reality

In response, Rabbi Brant Rosen writes:

9-9-11-Brant-RosenLike Rabbi Hart, I am profoundly inspired by the Jewish dream of return so powerfully evoked in Psalm 126. I do not, however, understand these words to be a "blueprint" for Jewish political nationalism. For most of Jewish history, in fact, the Jewish dream of return to the land was not understood literally but was rather projected onto a far-off messianic future. The rabbinic sages who developed Jewish tradition forcefully prohibited the forcing of God's hand through the establishment of an independent Jewish state...

I believe that as Jews, we must be willing to own [our] dark history and say it out loud: during 1947 to 1948, Zionist military forces either displaced or forcibly expelled over 700,000 Palestinians then forbid their return, creating what is today the largest refugee population in the world. Today more than 4,000,000 Palestinians harbour their own dream of return - not to a mythic Biblical homeland but to a land that they remember only too well.

In short, Israel's founding is inextricably bound up with an inherent injustice to the people who had made a home in this land. More critically, it is an injustice that continues until today through policies of dispossession and displacement designed to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in the state of Israel.

-- Rabbi Brant Rosen, A Jewish dream beyond political nationalism.

Reading these two essays side-by-side is an experience of wrestling with the both/and, for sure.

The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and

OldcityI always try to hold on to the both/and. To see things from both sides. To celebrate what is wonderful without ignoring what's problematic: in Torah, in the literary sources I read, in my relationships, in my life. This is one of my central life-values. And I also try to live out this value when it comes to the contemporary Middle East.

"Which Israel?" wrote my friend and teacher Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan earlier this winter [see Which Israel?, On Sophia Street.] "Mediterranean get-away? Holy land? Zionist dream? Occupying power?" My simplest answer to her rhetorical question is: E) All of the Above.

How to describe this place which has such a profound hold on the American Jewish imagination?

The Israel of lofty ideals [see its Declaration of Independence] and beautiful music, of open-air markets and communal farms, where our holy language of prayer is revived on the modern streets, where people live according to Jewish rhythms, gathering to share coffee and dreams for a transformed future?

2641379402_2b16d4ac47_nOr the Israel of violence toward African migrants, imprisonment of refugees [see Detained African asylum seekers in Israel, +972 magazine], occupation [see Reason #12,807 that I hate the occupation, In My Head] and separation barrier and checkpoints?

Most of the public discourse focuses on one of these visions, ignoring (or attempting to discredit) the other.

I'm always feeling at least two things when I think about Israel. This is why I assembled that Complicating Israel Reading List a few years ago. Trying to hold these contradictory truths in my head and heart is never easy, but the alternative -- choosing to view Israel only as good or only as evil -- seems insufficient to me on both intellectual and spiritual levels.

Continue reading "The spiritual work of wrestling with the both/and" »

Open hearts, open minds, open Hillel

LogoThe Swarthmore chapter of Hillel made headlines recently for declaring itself an "open Hillel," open to diversity of opinion on Israel. They have linked themselves with Open Hillel, a student-run campagn to encourage inclusivity and open discourse at campus Hillels. Open Hillel seeks to change the standards for partnership in Hillel International's guidelines, which exclude certain groups from Hillel based on their views on Israel.

When I was an undergraduate, I attended a small liberal arts college which didn't formally have a Hillel, though we did have a Jewish religious center and student group on campus. I attended Shabbat services there regularly -- until differences of opinion, both ritual and political, drove me to seek my spiritual self-expression through unofficial channels instead. (After that, the Williams College Feminist Seder was my primary mode of communal engagement.) If my student organization had been the kind of "open Hillel" which Swarthmore's organization aspires to become, I might have stayed engaged all the way through.

Here's how the Open Hillel folks describe their position:

Hillel International's current guidelines are counterproductive to creating real conversations about Israel on campus. They prevent campus Hillels from inviting co-sponsorship or dialogue with Palestinians, as almost all Palestinian campus groups support the boycott of, divestment from, and sanctions against Israel. They also exclude certain Jewish groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, from the Hillel community. Although individual campus Hillels are not obligated to follow the guidelines, they have been used to pressure Hillels into shutting down open discourse on Israel...

We believe deeply in the ideal, expressed in Hillel International's mission statement, of a vibrant, pluralistic Jewish community on campus, in which all people, regardless of their religious observance, past Jewish experience, or personal beliefs, are welcome. In many ways, Hillel has been remarkably successful at fostering such a pluralistic and inclusive community, bringing together students from different backgrounds to learn from and support one another, as well as to openly debate and discuss their differing views. We believe that this pluralism should be extended to the subject of Israel, and that no Jewish group should be excluded from the community for its political views.

This is very much in line with my own hopes for the post-collegiate Jewish community. I've written before about how frustrating I find it when members of the Jewish community police the speech of other Jews on this issue. (See Wishing for a different communal discourse, 2012.) My Judaism is a pluralistic, inclusive, big-tent Judaism where we interact respectfully and kindly despite our differences -- whether they are denominational, liturgical, practical, or political. Spiritually speaking, I resonate with the haggadah's call "let all who are hungry, come and eat" -- it doesn't say "let all who are Democrats," or "let all who are Republicans," or "let all who support AIPAC" (or JStreet or Jewish Voice for Peace) come and eat.

No one should have to leave part of themselves behind in order to merit a seat at the table. No one should be excluded from the Jewish community because of what they believe -- including their stances on Israel/Palestine. Beyond that, what message do we send when we seek to control the conversation about Israel? What are we afraid of -- that someone might say something with which we don't agree? It seems to me that the correct answer to speech with which one disagrees is not silencing that speech, but rather adding more speech to broaden and enrich the conversation. That's precisely what the Open Hillel movement aims to do.

I know that there are Jewish college students who do not identify as Zionists, or whose relationship with Israel is complicated, or who want to have conversations about targeted BDS (boycotting settlement-made goods.) I want those students to be part of the fabric of Jewish community, not to feel that they have to leave the Jewish community behind in order to ask their questions or articulate their truths. And I know that there are college students whose viewpoints on Israel / Palestine are profoundly Zionist, and I want those students to be part of the fabric of the community, too! (I'm not convinced that those students have as difficult a time safely speaking their truths as do those on the Jewish far left, but that's another conversation.) My point is, I want the Jewish community to be diverse enough to welcome kids with many different opinions, and to include them intentionally and with care.

Tightly guarding the boundaries of who's "in" and who's "out," and policing which opinions are permissible and which are taboo, comes out of old-paradigm thinking. I think that old paradigm has outlived its usefulness. College students today are increasingly aware of intersectionality, of the ways in which different social justice issues and different forms of oppression intersect and interact. Our world is increasingly permeable and interconnected, and so too our Jewish community. A Jewish community which seeks to control the conversation about Israel / Palestine is not going to be vibrant or relevant in this century.

I believe that the Jewish community (like all communities) is strengthened by discussion and debate, as long as that debate is l'shem shamayim, "for the sake of Heaven" rather than for the sake of ego or self-aggrandizement. We should be able to create a container which can safely hold our differences, even our differences on Israel. But I know how difficult it can be to create that container -- and also to be the person who feels excluded from that container and therefore unwelcome within the community, or only welcome if one keeps part of oneself silent and hidden. How wonderful it would be if our campus Jewish communities could model this kind of inclusivity for the rest of the Jewish world. Kol hakavod to Swarthmore Hillel. May others follow!

Also worth reading: my colleague Rabbi Brant Rosen's post On Open Hillel, Open Debate, and Open Minds.

On death and land: thoughts on Chayei Sarah

2699245754_23369359aa_nIn the first line of this week's Torah portion (Chayei Sarah) the matriarch Sarah dies, and Avraham negotiates to buy a burial place for her: the cave of Machpelah in what is now Hebron. Our first record of ownership of any of the land of Canaan is thus the purchase of a cemetery plot. Land ownership, death, and permanence seem to be linked: while alive, Sarah wandered the land, but now that she is dead, she is fixed in place. When we die, our lives become fixed as though in amber. Whatever stories were told about us while we lived -- those stories calcify like the fossils in the seabed of our ancient seas.

By the end of the portion, Avraham too dies, and his two sons -- Isaac born to Sarah, and Ishmael born to Hagar -- bury him in the same cave where he had buried Sarah. This parsha begins and ends with death. All roads in this portion lead to the cave, the tomb, the entrance into the earth. Maybe in their father's death the two half-brothers are able, however temporarily, to reconcile... or maybe Avraham's absence just heightens their alienation from each other, the ways in which they remember the same stories from childhood through different lenses, trauma in one brother's memory transmuted in the other brother's mind into rosy-hued comfort.

Reading this Torah portion now, I can't help thinking about the modern-day city of Hebron, which I visited several years ago and hope to visit again next year. I think about the continuing tensions between the spiritual descendents of Isaac and the spiritual descendants of Ishmael, and how those tensions have played out at the very site (more or less) which our two traditions hold to be Abraham's burial-place -- from the Cave of the Patriarchs Massacre to recent tensions in the South Hebron Hills. And then I think about initiatives like Project Hayei Sarah ("A group of rabbinical students, rabbis, Jewish educators & lay-leaders who have spent time in Hebron and are grappling with the difficult realities we encountered there") and this week's Christian Science Monitor story Why rabbis are helping Palestinians with olive harvests, and I wonder whether projects like those offer threads of hope to which we can cling.

The dead don't fight over who promised what to whom, but we, the living -- we contend bitterly over who has the right version of the truth. This is true on the microcosmic level of an individual family's narratives, and it's true on the macrocosmic level of the descendants of Abraham / Ibrahim -- the vast family narrative of which our traditions tell us we are a part. Every year as we return to parashat Chayei Sarah, I reread the story of my teacher Reb Zalman among the Sufis of Hebron, and I wish that more of us could meet others -- and Others, those whom our stories and our perspectives cast as being different from us -- the way that my teachers have taught me to try to do. What would it take to bring life to our relationships with our cousins from the line of Ishmael -- to say that our interactions don't have to be calcified like the ossified remains of our ancestors, but can instead be alive to growth and change, filled with connection and possibility?


Previous years' divrei Torah on this portion:

Photo source (Tomb of Abraham mosaic): my flickr stream.

My Neighbourhood in my neighborhood

Earlier this week I attended a screening of the short (25 minute) documentary film My Neighbourhood at The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. The filmmakers describe the film as being about "a remarkable nonviolent struggle in the heart of the world's most contested city." Here's the movie's official trailer:

(Edited to add:) For those who can't see the embed, it's here on YouTube. And for those who don't want to watch the trailer, here's a synopsis:

The documentary tells the story of Mohammed El Kurd, a Palestinian boy growing up in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. When Mohammed turns 11, his family is forced to give up part of their home to Israeli settlers, who are leading a campaign of court-sanctioned evictions to guarantee Jewish control of the area.

Shortly after their displacement, Mohammed’s family and other residents begin peacefully protesting against the evictions, determined not to lose their homes for good. In a surprising turn, they are quickly joined by scores of Israeli supporters who are horrified to see what is being done in their name. Among them is Jewish West Jerusalem resident Zvi Benninga and his sister Sara, who develop a strong relationship with Mohammed and his family as they take on a leading role in organizing the protests.

Through their personal stories, My Neighbourhood goes beyond the sensational headlines that normally dominate discussions of Jerusalem and captures voices rarely heard, of those striving for a shared future in the city.

I'd read a lot about it (see East Jerusalem Doc 'My Neighbourhood' Wins Peabody Award by Emily L. Hauser in The Daily Beast, or Sumeet Grover's review in the Huffington Post.) In addition to winning a Peabody, this short film won both at the Warsaw Jewish Film Festival and the Al Jazeera Documentary Festival -- how many movies can make that claim?

I knew I wanted to see it on the big screen. And I was especially interested in seeing it accompanied by the panel discussion which followed -- featuring Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace; Israeli writer, activist, refusenik, and poet Moriel Rothman (a frequent contributor to The Times of Israel and to Ha'aretz); and moderator Victor Navasky, Publisher emeritus of The Nation magazine and professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I expected that the film and subsequent discussion would move, challenge, and discomfit me. I find that trying to look at the Middle East with clear eyes and an open heart always does. 

Let me just say this: You should watch the film. It's 25 minutes long, and the whole thing is available on YouTube. It tells its story better than I can. If this is a part of the world that you care about; if peace and justice are issues that you care about; you should take 25 minutes of your life and watch this film.

Watching it made me weep.

Continue reading "My Neighbourhood in my neighborhood" »

A blessing over a Middle Eastern apéritif

170px-Glassofarak_enI'm not sure when I first tasted arak. Wikipedia tells me that it's the traditional alcoholic beverage across Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. It turns out that arak is typically made from the distillation of fermented grapes and/or vines, making it a sort of grappa, though on the second distillation aniseed is added -- hence the drink's characteristic liquorice taste.

I have a distinct memory of drinking arak with Ethan at a bar in Amman back in 2002. That was a business trip for him and a pleasure jaunt for me; I spent most of my days sightseeing, he spent most of his days in meetings, and then in the evening we'd meet for dinner and to stroll around the city and explore Amman by night. And one night we wound up at a bar sipping arak. I seem to remember that I'd tasted arak before that, though. Or maybe it just reminded me of other anise-flavored beverages from other corners of the Mediterranean. I've always loved anise, especially when its setting is at least as much savory as sweet, so arak and I were immediate friends.

2620310565_7b97df9231_m During the summer when I lived in Jerusalem, I used to walk from our sublet on Rechov Lincoln to a nearby restaurant and bar. This is five years ago now. It seems both far more recent, and far more distant -- an artifact, I suspect, of the ways in which life shifts when one has a child. But this was in our pre-child days. And because Ethan and I have lived in rural America for the better part of twenty years, I took pains that summer to go out from time to time, if only to experience the unique gifts of city life.

My housemates were a dear rabbinic school friend, her husband, and their daughter, who was three and a half that summer. Their kid was the same age then that our son is now, which is humbling and amazing when I stop to think about it; that was my first experience of living with a little one, and it was part of what made me feel able to take the leap into trying to get pregnant the following fall. Anyway, that kiddo and her mama went to bed early, for reasons I understand now all too well. So sometimes, in the evening, I'd walk to the nearby Restobar by myself, wanting to get out of the apartment and to take advantage of living in a city for a change.

Restobar was usually busy in the evenings, but I could usually find a table where I could nestle out of the way by myself. When my server came around, I would order kos arak, b'vak'sha. When it arrived, I would open up my laptop and use their wireless internet to correspond with Ethan or with friends back home (there was no internet in our apartment) as the melting ice turned the clear liquor cloudy and my mouth tingled with anise. Their menu also featured arak with grapefruit juice, but I was never able to imagine that combination of flavors -- and anyway, my blood pressure meds make grapefruit generally contraindicated. So I stuck with drinking it on the rocks, and was quite content.

Despite living in a small town in western Massachusetts, Ethan and I live a fairly cosmopolitan lifestyle -- but there are certain flavors which are hard to come by around these parts. None of the stores in our entire county stock arak, and for whatever reason, sambuca (which is easy to find) doesn't have the same zing for me. At the end of my Jerusalem summer, I spent my final wad of shekels on a bottle of arak at the airport duty-free shop, meaning to bring it home for Ethan to enjoy with me...only to have it poured into a trash can by an overzealous customs agent at Heathrow, because it hadn't been in a sealed ziploc bag when I got off the plane. Needless to say, I was miffed. (Obviously on some level I still am, or I wouldn't remember the story so well.)

On a recent trip to the big city -- for the final Rabbis Without Borders retreat -- I happened into a liquor store and noticed that they had Israeli arak on their shelves. Bingo: I picked up a bottle and schlepped it happily home. After that, the Berkshires were cool and rainy for a while (there was even danger of frost) so I forgot about the arak entirely. In my mind it's a hot weather beverage, something to sip slowly over ice on a warm night. But this weekend, summer has arrived wholly. And after I put our little guy to bed, my eye chanced on the bottle, and I poured myself a few fingers over ice. It swirled milkily as the ice began to melt on contact with the room-temperature anise-flavored liquid. I wondered whether I would still like it, after all this time.

The first sip was extraordinary. If I closed my eyes I could be right back at the Restobar, listening to people cheering and shouting in Hebrew at a televised soccer match, knowing that an endlessly ancient and endlessly complicated city was just outside the door. Or back at that bar in Amman, sitting on a barstool beside Ethan, listening to the sounds of Arabic around us. Instead here I am at our house in western Massachusetts, listening to local birdsong, surrounded by the rustle of green leaves, our son (God willing) at last falling asleep in his downstairs bedroom. But the taste of the Middle East is delicious and complicated on my tongue, and I am grateful for it.

Is there a bracha for an apéritif? The traditional answer is that alcohol which isn't wine is blessed with the blessing known as shehakol; it's the garden-variety all-inclusive one, the blessing for anything that doesn't have its own dedicated bracha. (It goes like this: "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who creates all things with Your word.") But I can't help thinking that the right blessing is actually the shehecheyanu, the blessing through which we sanctify time. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who has kept me alive, and sustained me, and enabled me to reach this moment -- and enabled me to be so immersed in memory -- and enabled my connections with places and moments which are far away, but which still live in my mind, and in my heart, and on my tongue.



Related: Foods of Israel: Arak cocktails in The Jew and the Carrot.

You Don't Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: R' Brad Hirschfield on faith without fanaticism

We need to see that everyone who is not just like us is not some kind of restoration project, just waiting for us to "fix" them and turn them into poor imitations of ourselves. Do we really want a world of people who look, think, and act just like we do? That's not spiritual depth or religious growth, but simply narcisissm with lots of footnotes.

You-dont-have-be-wrong-for-me-brad-hirschfield-paperback-cover-artThat's the kind of wisdom I've come to expect from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is one of the co-presidents of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Along with the other co-president, Rabbi Irwin Kula, he teaches at our Rabbis Without Borders fellows retreats. On my way home from our most recent retreat, I started reading his book You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.

I knew that R' Brad identifies as Orthodox, and I had a vague sense that his spiritual trajectory had been quite a journey. But I didn't realize quite how broad that journey was until I began reading this book. In the early chapters he describes his falling-in-love with Orthodoxy; his desire, as a senior in high school, to study for a year in Israel; and his immersion in the culture of the settlers of Hebron.

I visited Hebron back in 2008 (see A day in Bethlehem and Hebron), but I didn't go into the settlement, and I didn't meet anyone who lived in that part of the city. Early in this book, R' Brad offers a stark and unflinching description both of what drew him into the movement -- and what caused him to leave. This is the longest quote I'll offer, but I don't want to abridge it any further, because this is such a powerful recounting, and it's a voice I haven't seen in print elsewhere. R' Brad writes:

I was a pilgrim who had finally reached his destination. I felt whole. Complete. This was what God wanted. This was what God had commanded: Brad Hirschfield, nice Jewish boy from the North Shore, standing at a tomb in Hebron, surrounded by one hundred thousand Palestinians who hated my presence there, singing Hebrew prayers.

I know it may sound ridiculous now, but then I didn't question it for one moment. There was not an inkling of doubt.

[The settle underground] began advocating for an increasingly harsh response against violence directed at Jews....Most of this made sense to me. Jews were being killed for settling in what had once been Jewish homes. This was our land, given to us by God.

For two years I gave myself over to Levinger and his group and the militant arm of the settlers' movement. When settlers Menachem Livni, Shauli Nir, and Uzi Shabaraf (whom I knew, although I was not in Hebron that day) fired into the Hebron Islamic College and killed two Palestinian children, I really felt sick...

Most of my group felt it was a tragic mistake, but they also thought it a natural result of continuous violence against us...No one questioned the wisdom of building the Hebron community in light of what had happened.

I found myself outside the fold. I stopped going to Hebron. I had no idea how to discuss how I felt with anyone within the settlers' movement. And I had no desire to talk to anyone outside about it, either... I was no longer a pilgrim. I didn't quiet know what I was.

It's so easy for those of us outside of a particular fold to castigate those within, and vice versa. And that's true whether the fold is the settler movement, a religious denomination, a community, a subculture, a nation. This book opened up for me both some of what might draw a person into religious fanaticism -- and also the unique lessons such a person could bring with them upon, mercifully, exiting that world for one which is more expansive and pluralistic.

After 9/11, he writes, he realized that he needed to confront his own past, to begin writing and speaking about his experiences as an ardent young settler. "Religion had flown those planes into the Twin Towers, and I had practiced a form of that religion. It is the religion of pilgrims, of people who see no way but their own way, and treat people who do not support them as mistakes that need to be erased," writes R' Brad. Near as I can tell, he's dedicated his rabbinate to teaching that there is another way.

Continue reading "You Don't Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: R' Brad Hirschfield on faith without fanaticism" »

R' Menachem Froman: may his memory be a blessing

In the days since his death, Rabbi Menachem Froman -- may his memory be a blessing -- has been all over my blog reader, my twitter stream, and my Facebook feed. As my friends and colleagues have mourned his passing, sharing memories of studying with him, sipping tea with him, learning from him, I've been moved and surprised by what I've learned.

In the Jerusalem Post article Lessons from a man of peace, Yossi Klein Halevi describes Rav Menachem as a "man of paradox who helped found the settlement movement and continued to believe passionately in the right of Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel, even as he came to promote a two-state solution and rapprochement between Judaism and Islam." That's a paradox, all right: a settler rabbi who believed in the Jewish people's God-given right to inhabit the whole land -- and who also worked toward the Palestinian dream of a Palestinian state, with full expectation that his home of Tekoa, now part of Gush Etzion in the West Bank, would be part of that state.


2002: Rabbi Froman picks olives with Palestinian women in the West Bank village of Aqraba, in protest against violence committed by Israeli settlers. (Image found here at Huffington Post -- the whole slideshow is quite remarkable.)

Rav Menachem's vision, Klein Halevi writes, was that "however improbably, it was religious Jews who were best positioned to make peace with the Palestinians and the Muslim world generally." The peace process as we have known it, he argued, has been largely driven by political actors who tend to be liberal or non-religious. In his mind, that's exactly why it hasn't yet succeeded. Klein Halevi continues:

He taught me that, in order to make peace with the Muslim world, one needs not only to honor Islam but to love it – cherish its fearless heart, the power of its surrender, the wisdom of its frank confrontation with human transience. Once we went together to a mosque in Nusseirat, a refugee camp in Gaza. It was the time before the second intifada, when such adventures were still possible. We'd been invited by a community of Sufi mystics to join their zikr, the dance that combines chanting and breathing with vigorous movement. For nearly an hour we danced together with our Muslim fellow believers in God. "Allah!" Rav Menachem repeatedly cried out in devotion.

After the zikr, we sat with members of the community, and Rav Menachem explained why he had come here. Two thousand years ago, he said, my people sinned and were expelled by God from this land. But now God has brought us back, and I want to learn from my Muslim brothers who didn't leave here how to worship God in this land.

It was an extraordinary moment: A rabbi – from a West Bank settlement! – was telling Palestinian refugees that God had brought us back to this land. And they listened to him -- because he had come to learn from them, because he was speaking to them as one religious person to another, because he made no apology for Jewish indigenousness.

The mention of dancing / chanting zhikr with Sufis puts me, of course, in mind of the story of Reb Zalman Among the Sufis of Hebron, to which I have linked many times before.

Continue reading "R' Menachem Froman: may his memory be a blessing" »

Jewish Renewal voices on the UN vote recognizing Palestine

Last week, OHALAH -- the association of Jewish Renewal clergy -- voted on a resolution regarding UN recognition of Palestine. The resolution is now posted on the OHALAH website: Majority Opinion Among OHALAH Members on the UN Vote Recognizing Palestine and its Aftermath.

I'm proud of our community on several levels. First: I know that this resolution was a challenge to draft. This resolution was drafted by several members of the organization's tikkun olam committee, where there is a wide diversity of political and spiritual stances when it comes to Israel. So reaching a resolution on which all of us on the committee could agree was a victory. Second: once we brought the resolution to the broader OHALAH community, there was a lot of discussion on our list-serv. The conversation there was impassioned but productive. From where I sit, that's a victory too.

And finally: we're putting forth a majority opinion which says some things which I haven't heard any of the other major Jewish organizational voices saying. Such as:

[W]e are aware that the recent recognition of Palestine by the UN General Assembly is a tremendously important and profound moment for the Palestinian people. We honor its importance to the Palestinian people, even though many of us greet the news with trepidation about what this will mean for Israel. Only time will tell whether or not this recognition will actually move the peace process forward. We pray that this is a moment when hearts can open, and steps can be taken to pursue peace, and we call on both Israel and the newly-recognized Palestine to do everything in their power to actively pursue a just, lasting and secure peace.

This is a beautiful articulation of how I felt about the recognition of Palestine by the UN General Assembly. I don't know what it means for the future, but I recognize and honor that it's a big deal for the Palestinian community. I hope that this gesture on the part of the UN will help to create a situation where both peoples can negotiate a just and lasting peace from a new vantage. And yes, I pray that this is a moment when hearts can open and steps can be taken to pursue peace. Absolutely. Amen!

I also like the fact that this statement grounds these hopes in text:

As our sages taught centuries ago, when they interpreted Psalms 34:14, "Seek peace, and pursue it": "So great is peace, that you must seek peace for your own place, and pursue it even in another place" (Leviticus Rabah 9:9). As we seek peace for our own place, for the home of the Jewish people, we also accept our obligation to pursue peace in another's place, for another people as well as for ourselves.

Therefore, we call upon Israel and the Palestinian Authority to enter into direct bilateral negotiations. We agree with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said that "the only way to get a lasting solution is to commence direct negotiations." Therefore, we support the United States using its influence to bring the parties together for such negotiations.

We urge the three major parties involved in this process to avoid actions which may be seen as being retaliatory, reactionary, punishing or threatening to the commencement of direct negotiations.

What moves me here is the interpretation of the Leviticus Rabbah quote: that "seek peace and pursue it" means not only to seek peace for one's own place, but also to pursue it even in another place. We can read that as: seek peace from one's own place, and pursue it from the Other's place. Our tradition calls us to place ourselves in the position of the Other -- for me as a Jew, that means to try to stand in a Palestinian's shoes -- and seek peace not only from my own standpoint, but also from theirs. This is powerful stuff. (And I give kavod to R' David Seidenberg, who brought this particular interpretation to the table.)

I'm gladdened to be part of a clergy association which can accept this statement as a majority opinion among our members. May our hopes for peace be realized, speedily and soon.

The beating heart of music in Israel / Palestine

Hearing this track, and learning about this nonprofit organization, brought a bit of light into my Chanukah. (Thanks, A Way In, for sharing this song as one of your Chanukah posts!) So I figured I'd share it with y'all too. The song is called "Bukra Fi Mishmish," Arabic for "when pigs fly" or "when the impossible happens." It's written, and performed, by Israeli and Palestinian youth aged 16-20. It's terrific.

(If you can't see the embedded YouTube video, you can go to Bukra Fi Mishmish at YouTube.)

The song comes out of Heartbeat. Here's how that org describes itself:

HEARTBEAT is an international community of musicians, educators, and students using music to build mutual understanding and transform conflict. Founded in 2007 under a grant from Fulbright and MTV, Heartbeat offers a variety of programs to enable Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians to build trust and actively participate in defining their futures, by developing and spreading their music.

Fear, violence, ignorance and a pervasive lack of trust define the political and cultural reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Israelis and Palestinians have only encountered the other side through televised reports of extremist violence, soldiers at checkpoints, or politicians. As violence intensifies in this small corner of the world, people retreat to their side, and are too often unable to trust in the humanity of the other. To break the status quo of separation and violence and to build a future of peace, security, justice, and freedom for all, people on both sides must know the other; they must communicate and understand each others needs, fears, hopes and shared humanity. People on both sides must be shown tools of change more effective than violence.

Music has an amazing ability to connect people, build trust and inspire hope in the darkest of places. Modern, popular music has long been the voice of change all around the world and a powerful means for youth expression and nonviolent action. By bringing together young Jewish and Arab musicians and strengthening their voices, we are working to build a global culture of trust, compassion, and respect.

I give tremendous credit to everyone involved in this project; I don't imagine that this kind of creative and spiritual work is easy, but I do believe that it matters.

If this sounds like something you might want to support, consider donating to Heartbeat. They're in the process of applying for 501(c)3 status, but for those who are in the United States, tax-deductible contributions to Heartbeat can be sent to their fiscal sponsor, Jewish Renewal congregation Am Kolel, by clicking on the PayPal link on that donate page.

Happy Chanukah to all! I'll be humming this song long after this festival is through.

Prayer for the Children of Abraham / Ibrahim

For every aspiring ballerina huddled
scared in a basement bomb shelter

    For every toddler in his mother's arms
    behind rubble of concrete and rebar

For every child who's learned to distinguish
"our" bombs from "their" bombs by sound

    For everyone wounded, cowering, frightened
    and everyone furious, planning for vengeance

For the ones who are tasked with firing shells
where there are grandmothers and infants

    For the ones who fix a rocket's parabola
    toward children on school playgrounds

For every official who sees shelling Gaza
as a matter of "cutting the grass"

    And every official who approves launching projectiles
    from behind preschools or prayer places
For every kid taught to lob a bomb with pride
And every kid sickened by explosions

    For every teenager who considers
    "martyrdom" his best hope for a future:

May the God of compassion and the God of mercy
God of justice and God of forgiveness

    God Who shaped creation in Her tender womb
    and nurses us each day with blessing

God Who suffers the anxiety and pain
of each of His unique children

    God Who yearns for us to take up
    the work of perfecting creation

God Who is reflected in those who fight
and in those who bandage the bleeding --

    May our Father, Mother, Beloved, Creator
    cradle every hurting heart in caring hands.

Soon may we hear in the hills of Judah
and the streets of Jerusalem

    in the olive groves of the West Bank
    and the apartment blocks of Gaza City

in the kibbutz fields of the Negev
and the neighborhoods of Nablus

    the voice of fighters who have traded weapons
    for books and ploughs and bread ovens

the voice of children on swings and on slides
singing nonsense songs, unafraid

    the voice of reconciliation and new beginnings
    in our day, speedily and soon.

And let us say:




On "every aspiring ballerina huddled," see Twenty minutes in a Tel Aviv bomb shelter, Jewschool.

On children distinguishing bombs by sound, see A message to Israel's leaders: Don't defend me – not like this, Ha'aretz.

On "mowing the grass," see Israel, Gaza, and the patterns of the past, Washington Post.

On "projectiles / from behind preschools or prayer places," see Dealing with Hamas's human shield tactics, Jerusalem Post.

"Soon may we hear..." is a reference to the final blessing in the set of Sheva Brachot / Seven Blessings recited at every Jewish wedding.

Edited to add: this prayer benefited tremendously from the suggestions of rabbinic student David Markus, who read several drafts and offered substantive feedback. Thank you, David. The prayer is stronger for your contributions.


This is meant to be prayed in community as a responsive reading.

As a mother, as a human being, as a Jew, and as a rabbi, this prayer/poem is the best articulation I can offer of what my heart and soul are feeling right now. I pray for God to heal the hearts of all who suffer: Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and non-Jews, "us" and "them," combatants on both sides, those who fear on both sides, those who mourn on both sides, those who benefit from the existing systems in place and those who struggle within those systems. Please, God, speedily and soon.

I welcome comments. (If you are a new commenter, please read the VR comments policy before chiming in.) And all are welcome to share and to use this prayer in your community if it speaks to you, as long as you preserve its origin / attribution.

A pdf file is available for download if that's helpful: PrayerForChildrenOfAbrahamIbrahim [pdf]

Jen Marlowe, "The Hour of Sunlight," is coming to town

I picked up The Hour of Sunlight: One Palestinian's Journey from Prisoner to Peacemaker -- by Sami Al Jundi and Jen Marlowe -- after reading a review of the book in The Jewish Daily Forward. The review is by Israeli-American Emily L. Hauser, and here's how it begins:

BookAmericans often hear about Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the U.S.-Israel relationship. We read Israeli authors in translation, buy Israeli products, and anyone within driving distance of a JCC can hear an Israeli speak on a nearly weekly basis.

What we don't often hear are Palestinians.

This is, I believe, understandable — particularly for the Jewish community. We want to know more about ourselves, our brothers and sisters, our homeland. We want to support our people and our future. We know the story, and don't feel a need to hear the version told by Israel's enemies.

But perhaps that's exactly why we do need to consider Palestinian voices — because after all these years, Israel and the Palestinian people are still enemies.

(Read her whole review here: Hearing Palestinian Voices.) Reading Emily's review made me curious about the book, so I picked up a copy last winter, and last spring I shared my own review (Book review: The Hour of Sunlight.) In my post about the book last March, I wrote:

This book wasn't always easy for me to read, but it is powerful and it is worth reading, especially for anyone who (like me) may have more access to Israeli narratives about the Middle East than to Palestinian ones.

My review reached the attention of Jen Marlowe, the American co-author of the book. I learned that she'd actually given a reading in Williamstown in recent memory, which I had somehow missed. And then she mentioned that she would be happy to return to the Berkshires to share the book and to engage in conversation about it, if there were interest.

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